Restless Review

            After it was announced that it would have a who’s who of British actors last year, I looked forward to Restless (the Sundance Channel’s latest miniseries) with great anticipation.  Fortunately, this miniseries is one that lives up to its pedigree.  With a plethora of strong performances (led by Captain: America: The First Avenger’s Hayley Atwell and including Charlotte Rampling in a SAG nominated role), Restless is able to overcome some scripting problems and turn itself into one of the best miniseries of the TV season so far.

            Restless begins with Ruth (played by Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) visiting her mother, Eva (Rampling).  Upon her arrival, Ruth begins to notice that Eva is acting odd.  Eva reveals her secret life as a young spy during World War II.  Flashbacks portray Eva (now played by Atwell) as a young Russian woman who is courted by British spies and slowly reveal what she is so afraid about in the present day.  The two-part miniseries is directed by Edward Hall (whose most prominent work to date was for Cinemax’s little seen Strike Back) and is written by William Boyd (Chaplin).

            While this series certainly isn’t flashy and doesn’t display any sort of technical mastery (in fact the visual style is a bit bland), Edward Hall does some good work as director.  He is able to guide this miniseries through some troubling spots in a script that isn’t as successful as its direction.  There are just too many points (especially in the second installment) where this miniseries becomes a convoluted mess.  While the twists and turns in the later minutes of the miniseries are certainly interesting, they don’t warrant the amount of time spent on a plot that goes a little too far.  That being said the miniseries never feels overwhelming in terms of its plot.  Edward Hall makes sure the actors guide this series, and that was the best route for this miniseries.

            Hayley Atwell is phenomenal as the younger version of the main character.  This miniseries has a very similar format to the 2011 film, The Debt, as it flashes back between the present and past with a troubled spy.  In both that film and this miniseries, the older actress (Charlotte Rampling in this miniseries and Helen Mirren in that film) has received the most attention, however, it is the younger actress (Atwell for this miniseries and Jessica Chastain for that film) that actually steals the show.  Atwell feels realistic as a younger version of Rampling, and she really proves herself to be an actress that deserves some lead roles in films rather than these miniseries.  Among the supporting cast, Michelle Dockery is the major highlight.  Stuck in the far less compelling present day storyline, Dockery holds her own with Rampling and really plays it well as a woman trying to come to grips with the insanity that has just entered her life.  Unfortunately, Rufus Sewell and (especially) Michael Gambon aren’t utilized so well.  Sewell always seems like a background character in every scene he is in despite being given ample opportunity to make an impression, while Gambon is just wasted and doesn’t even come into play until the closing seconds of the first installment.

            Strong performances from the ladies of the cast make Restless rise above its generic direction and problematic script.


The Impossible Review

            There have been a lot of films in this year’s Oscars race that are based on or inspired by true events.  Argo, Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirtyhave received mass coverage in their relation to their real life stories.  Another film that fits into this category is The Impossible.  Taking place during the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and its aftermath, The Impossibleis really able to capture the emotion of the events it portrayed to as good of a degree (if not better) than those other films in the Oscar race.  While the film ultimately is a bit too manipulative at times for its own good, The Impossible is a stunning cinematic achievement.

            The Impossible is based off the true-life story of a family (a Mexican family in real life but an English family in the film, which really doesn’t become a problem until the film shows the “obligatory” real life photo during the end credits) that is caught in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami while on vacation.  While the mother (played by Naomi Watts in an Oscar-nominated role) and eldest son (played by theater actor Tom Holland) are able to reconnect quickly, they must endure chaos and severe injuries in their search for the rest of their family.  The film is directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (who came to prominence with the Guillermo del Toro produced The Orphange) and is written by Bayona’s frequent collaborator, Sergio G. Sanchez.

            Juan Antonio Bayona does an incredible job in directing this film.  He is somehow able to make this film seem incredibly epic (the tsunami sequence is just jaw-dropping as it is able to combine some incredible effects work with cringe-inducing sound work and realistic acting) while strikingly intimate.  In the first half of this film, he is able to put together a large set of exhausting (in a good way) scenes as we witness the carnage that this event caused.  Since this section of the film is less dependent on the script as later sections, it is really able to soar.  Sanchez’s script isn’t bad, but it certainly isn’t great as there are just too many moments of coincidence and scenes that hit you on the head with the film’s themes.  Despite that Bayona is still able to make the second half work as he still makes some of the more clunky scenes resonate and gets some really great acting out of his cast.

            Naomi Watts leads a very strong cast.  While she is immobilized for large portions of the film, she is able to bring a lot of physicality to the role in a striking manner.  It’s a gritty performance that will get a lot of attention (and it already has), but it doesn’t overpower the other performances in the film.  In fact, Ewan McGregor is just as good (if not better) as the father of the family.  He is off-screen for large portions of the film but he makes the most of his screentime and really nails his money scene.  The child actors are also really good (especially Tom Holland who is tasked with handling some of the scenes in the film on his own).

            While it’s not without some faults, it’s quite surprising that The Impossible received only one Academy Award nomination.  It’s a powerful combination of top-notch effects work, sturdy direction, and fantastic acting.


Fringe: Season 5 Review

            Fringe definitely hit its peak in its third season.  After building momentum during its first two seasons, the show aired a season of television that was not only one of the best seasons aired during that year but one of the best seasons of science-fiction television ever as it expertly handled parallel universes and other complex subject matter.  While season four of the show was still enjoyable, the show did get a little too complex for its own good.  Instead of fixing this problem for its fifth and final season though, the show only ratcheted up the complexity and in the process forgot what made this show so great in the first place.  These final episodes of this once great series are a long way away from the glory days of season three.

            In this final season of Fringe, the story takes place in the future as the Observers have taken over and have put the un-amber-ed parts of the world into an authoritarian state.  After being released from the amber state they have been in for years, Peter (Joshua Jackson) and Walter (John Noble) try to find Olivia (Anna Torv) with the help of Peter and Olivia’s long lost daughter, Etta (Georgina Haig), before they try to take on the Observers.  In a surprising move, Jeff Pinkner left as co-showrunner before the season began leaving J.H. Wyman as the show’s sole showrunner.

            The loss of Jeff Pinkner in the writing room turned out to be a big one as it became clear this season that J.H. Wyman couldn’t handle the show on his own.  While just taking on a simple storyline narrative (revolution), Wyman was somehow able to bog this entire season down in way too much scientific mumbo-jumbo and exposition that ultimately didn’t matter much in the end game.  Wyman and his writing team lost track of what made this show work in the first place, the characters and the family they have created.  While there were still numerous acknowledgements of that (from the fate of Etta to a touching final moment between Walter and Peter), they were too often clouded by tracking down MacGuffins and Observers talking about things obscurely.  This was quite simply a season that brought all of the weaknesses that this show has had all along to the forefront.

            That is a shame because the normally reliable cast got left behind.  Anna Torv did not get a single bit of worthy material this season and the return of Alt-Olivia (who Torv has done wonders with) just seemed like a way to remedy that rather than bringing the character back to actually enhance the series’ narrative.  Joshua Jackson (who has always been the series’ weak link) seemed like he was put in the forefront too often this season while John Noble took the brunt of the mythology stuff that bogged down this entire season.  Luckily he was able to get some great moments in the series finale (especially when he was onscreen with Michael Cerveris, who got a worthy sendoff).  Georgina Haig was another highlight this season (even if her screentime was all too brief).

            With a final season as poor as this, Fringewill unfortunately fall short of being considered a sci-fi tv great.


5 Broken Cameras Review

            This year we are lucky enough to have a Best Documentary Oscar field where most of the nominees are widely available to the public.  Three of the five films in the field are available on Netflix Instant, and there haven’t been any bad films in the field from what I have seen so far.  One of those documentaries is 5 Broken Cameras.  This documentary tells a fascinating and important story with behind the scenes developments during the filmmaking process that are just as interesting.  Unfortunately, the film overstays its welcome before it’s all over revealing that this story could have been even more effective as a short.

            5 Broken Cameras follows a Palestinian named Emad Burnat from a small farming community.  Through five cameras (he takes on another each time the current one is damaged) he recounts the Israeli encroachment on the land as the small farming community takes on a peaceful resistance.  The film shows an under-told story to the western world, in which Israel is not always the good egg it is made out to be.  Emad Burnat acts as a co-director.  The surprising thing about the production of this film though is that the other co-director is an Israeli, Guy Davidi.

            While this documentary definitely shows the power of film (as it shows people from two conflicting nations working together to create something), I think the behind the scenes story of this film is carrying it a lot further than the actual material on display in the film does.  While the film is definitely engaging and brings awareness to a situation I doubt the vast majority of the western world had any idea about, the film just gets way to repetitive.  There are just way too many protest marches, way too many instances of Israeli soldiers abusing Palestinians and way too many stories about how cameras got destroyed for this film to rise above your typical documentary.  This film is definitely in need of some major editing, and really would have been more effective if it were thirty minutes shorter. 

            That being said this is still a film that needs to be seen.  It is such an interesting tale in a world that viewers of this film would know very little about.  The filmmakers do a very effective job in displaying their vision and their case.  I think that this is a film that even less open minded people (in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) will still be able to find some value in, and that is the testament of some great filmmaking.


Mama Review

          Jessica Chastain has been on a roll as of late.  She had a big week on the awards circuit this past week (winning a Critics’ Choice Award and a Golden Globe), and one of her latest films, Zero Dark Thirty, finally hit #1 at the box office.  All of this was done while she was busy starring in The Heiress on Broadway.  Just when you think she was done though, Chastain is back for more.  She is also starring in one of this week’s new films, Mama (giving her the chance to not only star in back to back #1 films at the box office but also star in the #1 and #2 films at the box office during this upcoming weekend).  Unsurprisingly, Jessica Chastain is the best part about Mama.  However, what is surprising is that most of the cast is almost as good as her and this horror film is able to hold it together for much longer than most films of its ilk.

            Mama follows Lucas (played by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and his girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) as they suddenly find themselves caring for Lucas’ long lost nieces (played by Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Neslisse).  His nieces have reached a feral state after living by themselves in the wilderness for five years.  However, as the four begin living together, Annabel begins to realize that they might not have really survived on their own.  The film is directed by Andres Muschietti (after Guillermo del Toro thought it would be a good idea to have him take his short film on the same subject and turn it into a feature length film).  The film is written by Andres and Barbara Muschietti and Neil Cross (Luther showrunner).

            Up until the last ten or so minutes of this film, Andres Muschietti does a fantastic job of bringing this small horror film together.  It features some great scenes that rely on bizarre imagery and strong technical work instead of jump scares.  While the jump scares do come eventually, they are kept to a minimum as the film quickly goes back to carrying out its plot.  However, like most horror films, Mama never really figures out how it should end.  While the ending is ultimately a failure, you have to admire that this film tried to go in a different direction.  Abandoning its horror roots and adapting a more fantastical atmosphere, the ending at least allows for some great work from its cast even if what occurs doesn’t really sit with what came before it.

            The one thing that really brings this film above its horror roots, though, is its cast.  Jessica Chastain is fantastic in a film that is far below her pedigree.  She seems so at home playing a tough as nails rocker who is uneasy around children despite that being so against type from her normal roles (assuming there is such a thing as a “normal role” with Chastain anymore).  Her slow transition to a caring mother figure also seems extremely natural in her hands.  While Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is pushed to the side for most of the film’s duration he does make the most of his screentime.  However, the real surprise of the film is Megan Charpentier (and to a lesser extent Isabelle Nelisse).  Charpentier is really able to handle a lot of dramatic moments while still making it seem like there was a subtle change in her character’s personality from beginning to end.  That is a lot to handle for a child actor, and yet she is able to do it.

            A strong cast led by Jessica Chastain is able to raise Mama above is horror roots.


2012 Cinema Awards

Best Visual Effects
Life of Pi (Erik De Beor, Donald Elliott, Guillaume Rocheron & Bill Westenhofer)    
Best Sound Mixing
Prometheus (Ron Bartlett, Simon Hayes & Doug Hemphill)
Best Sound Editing
John Carter (Jonathan Null)
Best Production Design
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Simon Bright, Dan Hennah & Ra Vincent)    
Best Original Song
"Skyfall", Skyfall (Adele & Paul Epworth)
Best Original Score
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Howard Shore)
Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Lincoln (Lois Burwell & Kay Georgiou)    
Best Film Editing
Zero Dark Thirty (William Goldenberg & Dylan Tichenor)
Best Costume Design
Lawless (Margot Wilson)
Best Cinematography
The Master(Mihai Malaimare Jr.)    
Best Original Screenplay
Martin McDonagh, Seven Psychopaths
Best Adapted Screenplay
Joe Carnahan & Ian Mackenzie Jeffers, The Grey    
Best Supporting Actress
Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables
Best Supporting Actor
Andy Serkis, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Best Lead Actress
Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games
Best Lead Actor
Joaquin Phoenix, The Master    
Best Director
Kathryn Bigelow, Zero Dark Thirty    
Best Picture
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (Carolynne Cunningham, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh & Zane Weiner)    

4-The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
2-The Master
2-Zero Dark Thirty

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