Tag Archives: Movies

Where should we draw the line between TV and film?

Olive Kitteridge

Last week, I finally caught up with HBO’s celebrated 2014 mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Adapted from Elizabeth Strout’s novel of the same name and told over an expansive four-hour runtime, it’s broken into four parts that align with its somewhat episodic “chapter” structure.

Few people would contest the fact that Olive Kitteridge is a mini-series. In terms of narrative scope and format, it’s perfectly suited to hour-long segments. Yet in the opening credits, it’s labelled as “a film by Lisa Cholodenko”. And that feels valid too. Olive Kitteridge has a cinematic feel to it and Cholodenko, whose past films include The Kids Are All Right and Laurel Canyon, clearly brought a Hollywood pedigree to the project.

So with all of that in mind, I began to wonder, where exactly is the line between television and film?

One simplistic and perhaps obvious answer is, “it doesn’t really matter.” Great art is great art regardless of how or where you consume it. And whether something is distributed as a theatrical film or a television mini-series could very well come down to practical decisions related to its potential marketability on a given platform. When you look at it that way, the division doesn’t feel all that artistically significant.

But still, labelling something as “film” or “television” brings certain consequences. In this supposed golden age of television, the line between the two formats is blurring, but many viewers and critics still hold onto the idea that television is “lesser” than cinema. Calling something a “made for TV movie” still has a somewhat withering connotation, even in an age where it’s not uncommon for A-list Oscar winners like Al Pacino or William Hurt to star in said movies.

Even big-name talent might not get the same respect for their work on TV. Frances McDormand won an Emmy for Lead Actress in a Limited Series or a Movie for her work in Olive Kitteridge, and in my opinion quite deservedly so. We’ll never know if she would have won her second Best Actress Oscar had Olive Kitteridge been eligible for that award (her first being in 1997 for Fargo), but if you were going to introduce McDormand by her credentials, it seems a lot more likely you’d say “Academy Award winner Frances McDormand” rather than “Emmy Award winner Frances McDormand”.

It’s not all bad news for television, though, since the format obviously also affords some artistic freedom that film doesn’t. By having the luxury of taking four hours to track 25 years in its protagonist’s life, Olive Kitteridge obviously has the room to fully develop its characters. Who’s to say that it would have been so effective pared down to a standard “movie” runtime of half the length?

And it’s not as though television is so ghettoized nowadays. Series like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones are arguably bigger cultural phenomenons than almost any recent movie to hit theatres. If the quality is there people will catch on, and with online platforms enabling viewers to “binge watch” hours of content at a time, it seems the tides are turning in favour of longer-format series that fans can get invested in and discuss for longer than a “one and done” standalone movie.

One film that really worked to blur those lines was O.J.: Made in America (which I reviewed here), Ezra Eddelman’s nearly eight-hour documentary about the notorious O.J. Simpson. Documentaries have always lent themselves nicely to episodic, multi-hour miniseries, whether it be Ken Burns’ lengthy PBS examinations of American history or the Netflix sensation Making a Murder. And O.J. did break into five logical and vaguely self-contained parts to air on television or streaming. But those involved with O.J. stayed adamant that it was in fact a feature film, riding that classification all the way to a (well-deserved) Oscar win for Best Documentary. Some quibbled with the idea of O.J. being a movie, but considering it initially screened at film festivals like Sundance and Hot Docs as a single 463-minute unit, it seems illogical to argue that it’s not.

With that example in mind, perhaps the best way to classify whether something is film or television comes down to intent. If the filmmakers envision their work as an eight-hour film, then so be it. There are certainly examples of arthouse and experimental films that run nearly as long or longer, but they’d also never be broken into smaller, more easily digestible segments simply because they lack marketability, regardless of how you dice them up. If we accept those works as “films” at face value, why do we try to “punish” something like O.J. by claiming it’s not a film, simply because a studio or distributor took the opportunity to get the film out to a wider audience by choosing an alternative format for their film?

Since we’re talking about intent, let’s close with some thoughts from one of the filmmakers in question. When asked about Olive Kitteridge’s format, Cholodenko had this to say:

When I saw it back for the first time on a screen, it’s got this really lovely title sequence and says ‘A Film by Lisa Cholodenko’ — and I watched it and I thought, wow does it feel like that? Is that going to be strange?

And then at the end I really felt like, gosh, that really is a film, it was really such a great opportunity to make this four hour film, you know? It does have these chapters but for me it feels very coherent. It’s all in the piece and it hangs together and it is like a film. We shot it like a film, I approached it like a film, I think visually it feels like a film and narratively I thought of it as a film with the whole arc: Where does she go, where does she start, does it have a midpoint? All these things weave together — even though they’re episodes — into a bigger picture.”

Review: The Belko Experiment

The Belko ExperimentYou’d be forgiven for thinking the premise of The Belko Experiment sounds familiar. Following a group of American employees at a Colombian office building, a typical day at work quickly becomes a sadistic social experiment when the workers are instructed to start killing one another in order to avoid being killed. It’s a little bit of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Funny Games rolled together, all somehow set inside an off-kilter workplace comedy.

Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) begins the proceedings by sardonically showing us the sanitized office setting of Belko Industries, but don’t let the film’s mild set-up fool you. Once the office building goes into lockdown, the pleasantries quickly vanish, making way for the bloodshed and exploding heads. There’s no other way to say it: The Belko Experiment is very violent. However, for those who aren’t too squeamish, there’s a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to the film that does help ease some of the brutality of what’s being depicted on screen. It’s more camp than torture porn; decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.

The Belko Experiment seems like a bit of a surprising choice to get a major release, having gotten its start on the festival circuit and featuring no A-list names. It doesn’t aspire to be much more than a high-concept, low-budget cult film, and it seems like it’ll have far better longevity on Netflix than it will at the box office. I suspect a lot of its pumped-up profile has to do with the involvement of James Gunn (best known for directing the Guardians of the Galaxy films), who takes on writing and producing duties here.

The irony of that, of course, is that the script is easily the film’s weakest element, never quite finding the balance between schlock and social commentary. The set-up features the sort of cardboard characters and snarky one-liners that we come to expect from this grade of horror flick, and then once the shit starts to hit the fan, Gunn never pushes the “moral dilemma” aspect hard enough, which should be at the film’s core. It instead becomes a matter of who’s going to turn into the big, bad villain that everyone else has to defeat. There’s a smart film buried within Belko that we get hints of, with its wry commentary on corporate life, and it would have been nice to see more of that, rather than a reliance on overworked clichés.

One aspect of The Belko Experiment that works both for and against it is the cast, which is huge. Clearly Gunn gave some of his friends a ring, because there’s no other explanation for how the film manages to land a character actor trifecta of John C. McGinley, Tony Goldwyn, and Michael Rooker. (Google it if the names don’t sound familiar – you’ll know all their faces.) All three of their characters are written to varying degrees of ridiculousness but are very fun to watch.

John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom, 10 Cloverfield Lane), meanwhile, might seem like a weird choice for the lead role but perfectly balances the everyman aspect of his thinly-written character with the badass “action” direction he has to go, all the while bringing a bit of genuine emotional heft to the proceedings. Most of the other actors are in the film too briefly to make much of an impression, and at least half a dozen of them could have been trimmed without anyone really noticing. It’s just another example of how Belko largely squanders its potential, settling for low-brow pulp when it had all the goods to be something more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Belko that work. McLean has a firm handle on the direction and carries the viewer through smoothly, even as the plot becomes outlandishly chaotic. And while the film fails to deliver on its premise in terms of the explanation provided for why the “experiment” is happening, it does manage a gut-punch of an ending. (It’s also a suspiciously sequel-friendly one, but I guess we can’t begrudge them that.)

Gunn has talked about how long The Belko Experiment percolated in his mind before getting made, and it does end up feeling overworked, never quite hitting any of the marks it seems to want to. However, the ride is still a mildly fun one – assuming your idea of a good time is at least a little bit twisted.

Movie characters I want to catch up with 20 years later

Reality Bites 2

This Friday, T2 Trainspotting hits theatres in North America, bringing Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and the rest of the crew back together. They’re a little bit older and a whole lot craggier, but they’re still alive, so I guess that’s a start.

To be honest, my reaction when I first heard about a Trainspotting sequel was to recoil. I like the original film quite a bit, which means I hold it high enough esteem that I don’t want to see it tarnished, but I’m also not such a huge fan of it that I’m desperate to jump back into that world.

However, I trust Danny Boyle, and the spirited trailers for T2 have instilled a little more hope in me. And then I started thinking about other films that could benefit from (or at least survive) similar treatment. And I was surprised by how few came to mind. A lot of movies have endings that wouldn’t work with a sequel, some already provide their own epilogue to explain what happens, and some have characters that I just don’t care about enough to revisit down the line.

But some do paint a rich world that I’d be eager to jump back into. So here are a handful of movie characters who deserve a thoughtful follow-up showing what would be in store for them 20 years later, a la T2.

(Note: No major plot spoilers ahead But, when talking about a potential movie sequel, I suppose some mild contextual spoilers are inevitable.)

Boyhood

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) – Boyhood

Is this an obvious pick? Maybe. Would it be a terrible idea to call Boyhood’s hypothetical sequel Manhood? Probably. But considering we’ve already spent 12 years following Mason’s life, what’s another 20?

In all seriousness, though, even though trying to expand on the perfection that is Boyhood might sound like a terrible idea, if any director could pull it off, it’s Richard Linklater. He somehow turned Before Sunrise (what should have been a charming little standalone about a one-night stand, essentially) into a sprawling 18+ year franchise about the perils, joy, and lived-in tragedy of interpersonal relationships. Similarly, we saw Ellar Coltrane literally grow up in front of our eyes, so there would be something inherently satisfying continuing to follow Mason through post-college life.

So bring on the Boyhood Cinematic Universe. Plus, given his commitment to Linklater’s ridiculously long-winded timelines, we know Ethan Hawke would probably be on board.

Ida

Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) – Ida

Oddly, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was one of the first films that came to my mind for this list. And while this understated black-and-white Polish drama might not seem like a film that screams “sequel”, its central character is certainly fascinating enough to warrant further consideration.

As we see her, Ida’s life is in flux. She’s on the cusp of taking her vows to become a nun when she uncovers a family secret that shakes her self-assurance. By the end of the film, it feels like Ida’s only just starting to find the path she should truly be on. She makes some weighty choices, and I’d love to find out where they end up taking her. As well, since so much of the film revolves around personal and cultural history, it would be fascinating to see the echoes of Ida’s past reverberating in the future, and the various ways her own lived-in and inherited experiences mingle together into her adulthood.

The Panic in Needle Park

Bobby and Helen (Al Pacino and Kitty Winn) – The Panic in Needle Park

Movies that focus on a character’s addiction are kind of built to leave us wanting a sequel. Even if a character seems to be on the path to recovery by the end, there’s still that lingering question of whether they’ll be able to stay on the wagon. I think this is why the premise of a Trainspotting sequel works, and it would also apply to 1971’s The Panic in Needle Park.

Granted, we’re now well past the 20-year anniversary mark, but in a hypothetical world where we could have gotten an early-‘90s follow-up to The Panic in Needle Park, it would have been fascinating. Even the time period would have worked, with the potential of contrasting gritty 1970s New York City with the “heroin chic” trend of the ’90s.

Not to mention the fact that Bobby and Helen are just fascinating characters. The ending of the original is open-ended enough to leave us unsure of their paths, and while I unfortunately suspect that things wouldn’t go so well for them in the intervening 20 years, I’d be highly curious to see where they end up.

 The Fits.jpeg

Toni (Royalty Hightower) – The Fits

Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits finds its young protagonist Toni very much in a state of transition. The film takes an ephemeral look at the onset of womanhood, represented by mysterious and rather frightening literal “fits” that beset pubescent girls.

Were we to jump forward a couple decades and find Toni in her early 30’s, the changes and growth she’d be experiencing definitely wouldn’t be as drastic and visceral as those that we see in The Fits. However, I think Holmer crafts such a weirdly honest look at life (albeit through strange magical realism elements) that I just want to see how her worldview would translate to other stages of life.

Plus, The Fits pits Toni’s tomboyish tendencies in direct opposition with budding femininity and I’m doing to know how that internal battle plays out.

 Ethan Hawke And Winona Ryder In 'Reality Bites'

Lelaina, Troy, and Michael (Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, and Ben Stiller) – Reality Bites

If there’s one movie that’s more quintessentially ‘90s than Trainspotting, it’s probably Reality Bites. And while I do love it, but I also think there would be something oddly satisfying about watching its characters stumble to navigate a 2010s world. In true Gen X fashion, they were already angsty and disenfranchised in Reality Bites, so just think of how wholly perturbed they’d be by millennials.

Some of the issues tackled in Reality Bites were very ‘90s-specific while others were timeless, so there’d still be plenty of angst to mine. I can’t imagine that life ended up the way the film’s self-assured young characters imagined for themselves, but the, ahem, reality of it all might end up being far more interesting.

The Wolfpack

The Wolfpack – The Wolfpack

Not actually “characters” at all, the titular Wolfpack from Crystal Moselle’s documentary of the same name refers to the Angulo brothers, a closenit sextet. Raised in an extremely sheltered New York City apartment (so much so that they’d only be permitted to leave the house a couple of times a year), the brothers made their own fun by recreating and film scenes from their favourite movies. The Wolfpack examines the various ways the brothers begin to break out from their sheltered existence (or, in some cases, choose not to do so) as they reached the cusp of adulthood.

If Moselle and the Angulos decided to turn The Wolfpack into something reminiscent of the 7 Up series and caught up with them a couple decades down the line, we’d have the potential to see how the young men adjusted to the “real world” after their oppressive upbringing. Plus, who know which fantastic new movies would come out for them to reenact in the intervening 20 years?

 25th Hour

Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) – 25th Hour

Spike Lee’s 25th Hour has so much complexity and character development packed into a movie with a mere single-day span. Following Monty through the final 24 hours before he begins a seven-year prison sentence, not only is Norton’s Monty a compelling protagonist, but he’s surrounded by a fantastic supporting cast that includes Barry Pepper, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin.

Any excuse to spend more time with interesting characters is always a good one. But even apart from that, 25th Hour ends on a note that is somehow both ambiguous and finite, leaving the viewer wanting to know what becomes of Monty. Considering how much he goes through in a single day, I’m almost afraid to think about what another 20 years would do to him. But I’m sure Lee’s vision of it would be enthralling.

Review: Brimstone

Brimstone

Somewhere within Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is a film with a fiercely feminist slant. Set in front of a fairly typical 19th century western backdrop, the film follows Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young mother being terrorized by a sinister preacher (Guy Pearce) who has his sights set on her. Throughout its ample 148-minute runtime, Brimstone shows the injustice and abuse that women face, as well as the ways they seek revenge. But while that may sound interesting or even empowering in theory, where Brimstone flies woefully off the rails is in the leering, exploitative way it presents its presumably well-intentioned message.

This isn’t to say that a film can’t be shocking while still making its points. And indeed, in one way I respect Koolhoven’s commitment to brutality; his hand is unflinching and his vision clear. The problem, though, comes from the fact that his vision happens to be so unrelentingly nasty that Brimstone becomes a complete slog by the time it wheezes to the end of its four-chapter structure. The shock value wears off early on, leaving the viewer with a sort of grimness set at the same pitch throughout, rarely evolving after the film’s first half hour or so.

Some of the brutality comes with a side helping of Koolhoven’s pitch-black sense of humour, and it’s easy to see that a lot of Brimstone’s most debauched moments are meant to be very darkly satirical. However, it seems that satire serves no real purpose other than to slightly lessen the blow of the twisted things Koolhoven is presenting on screen. Some viewers will be offended by the crimes that are fairly graphically inflicted on women, children, and animals throughout the film. Others, like myself, will find them trying so hard to be “edgy” that they lose all impact.

Koolhoven is clearly going for an in-your-face brashness (as evidenced even by the film’s title card, which declares it “Koolhoven’s Brimstone”) and his style is not without its merits. Resting in some ethereal realm between arthouse and schlock, there’s an elegant griminess to Brimstone that there just might be a gap in the market for. Despite largely really disliking this film, I still wouldn’t be opposed to checking out what Koolhoven makes next.

Dakota Fanning makes the most of things, delivering a powerful, measured lead performance despite the lack of character development included in the script. As the film settles in and you start calculating exactly how many minutes are left in the runtime, she and the film’s moody, burnished cinematography become two bright spots amid the mire. It would be unfair to expect that to be enough to carry the whole bloated beast, but it does kind of justify the film’s existence, and that’s not nothing.

It’s unclear if the world really needed the creation of a “Dutch psychosexual western” film subgenre, but it’s probably safe to say that Koolhoven has now cornered the market. Unfortunately, Brimstone just never follows through on its sweeping vision. Koolhoven clearly has the visual flair and attitude to pull it off, but it’s yet to be seen if he has it in him to find the restraint and narrative thrust necessary to really get a bizarre film like Brimstone off the ground. It seems unlikely he’ll stop trying, though.

Review: Logan

Logan

We all know that the concept of the “gritty reboot” is a little played out. (As soon as the internet starts meme-ing something, it’s never a good sign.) However, if ever there was a cinematic character who warranted some rougher and tougher reconsideration, it’s probably Wolverine. Enter: Logan.

Of course, Logan isn’t actually a reboot, considering Hugh Jackman has now been donning his Wolverine scowl for well over a decade and Logan marks director James Mangold’s second time tackling the character. But while some audience members may be growing fatigued by the Wolverine tale and have lost count of how many different X-Men-related films we’ve now seen him in, it’s also difficult to claim that Logan doesn’t feel like something quite different within the franchise. And when you’re bringing Wolverine-level familiarity to the already well-worn superhero genre, the fact that Logan can actually be described as “fresh” feels like a small miracle in and of itself.

Part of this does have to do with the film’s much-discussed R-rating, which Mangold and co. take full advantage of when it comes to the violence. However, while it’s fun to hear Wolverine drop a few well-placed f-bombs and the brutal fight scenes are stunningly directed, I’d argue that the film doesn’t really need its R. The film is otherwise rather understated and actually features a lot of downtime, so in one sense I can understand why Mangold wanted to throw in a few spirited beheadings to keep restless audience members alert, but the result is that it ends up feeling a bit inconsistent in tone.

Rather, the thing that truly sets Logan apart is its focus on character. Logan and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) get fully-formed arcs, and Mangold and his fellow screenwriters leave room to show the toll that time has taken on their characters. It’s a melancholy, often pessimistic meditation on morality, tackling themes of regret and vulnerability. Most superhero movies don’t even try to wade into anything with a bit of emotional heft, or when they do, it just feels woefully cursory. (Here’s looking at you, Captain America: Civil War.) By contrast, Logan revels both in its meditative tendencies, and the considerable emotional range of its pair of lead actors, who have never been better within the X-Men franchise.

However, even Jackman and Stewart can’t completely smooth over the film’s flaws, which aren’t massive but do prevent the film from truly transcending superhero tropes. To start with, Mangold can’t seem to resist throwing in a hammy, undeveloped villain who this time around comes in the form of Boyd Holbrook’s Pierce. (If you want to see Holbrook do some truly fantastic work in a gritty, small-town America cinematic setting, check out 2015’s underrated indie Little Accidents. But he’s sadly all scenery chewing and “quirk” here, ultimately amounting to a character of no substance.) And while there’s something to be said for a deliberate pace, this movie does feel overly long at 135 minutes; by the time we reach the end it feels fairly inevitable (though still affecting), and I think the film would be all the stronger if we could have gotten there 20 minutes sooner.

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get sucked in by the surprising pathos of Logan in spite of its flaws, and while it may not be entirely revolutionary, it is a refreshing detour. Hopefully it’s a sign of the direction more franchises will start to take.