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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.
The Problem With Docudramas
Most crime stories on film exist solely as commercial exploitation of thinly disguised news reports of actual crimes. This is no exception. The documentary aspect of "Narcos" is a loosely narrated voice-over in English that provides historical perspective as filmed characters based on real persons speak largely in Spanish with English subtitles. The visual aspect on the other hand is criminal violence contrasted with everyday human values common to members of the average audience. Scenes of family life, a little comedy, a little irony are never far from moments of intense dramatic action.
The viewer must judge whether "Narcos" captures accurately its time, place, and facts while he/she simultaneously appreciates acting and production values based on the relative skill of the film's creators. This is no easy task, because history is often defined by one's prejudices and a multilingual script spoken by actors from several different countries complicates the whole thing. A quick read of reviews previously contributed prove the point.
"Narcos" at present (end of the first season) is just OK from my perspective...nothing great but far from boring. Living on the Mexican border as I do and knowing lots (yes, lots) of people on both sides of the law, I am compelled to be probably more critical of this production than I should be. But there are far worse examples of films out there dealing with drug smuggling both then and now.
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.
Here we have a beautifully filmed drama actually made in Virginia rather than Hungary about the War for Independence. Using Williamsburg as a stand-in for Philadelphia is a winner, even though Philadelphia at the time probably looked more like a small version of London. But I quibble. The main fault of this series is that it is precisely what a number of the negative reviewers have stated: actual history is distorted, serving only as a crutch for a mediocre soap opera. Professional actors tend to be melodramatic when their characters lie outside a contemporary setting. Thus for example George Washington's personal agony is presented not as a great man's victory over doubt and frequent indecision, but rather as a method actor's exercise in resistance and transference made possible by interaction with a slave whose fictional character seems to come straight out of the 21st century.
I concur as well with those who have pointed out flaws in the use of language and strangely unclear accents, many of which sound less like Yankee speech of the time and often, anachronistically, Irish. At one point a character uses the questionable "reoccurence." The British major pronounces "schedule" in the modern American way. And so on.
In short, I like the cinematography and sets but hate abuse of history and weaknesses in writing and a generally uneven cast.
Deutschland 83 (2015)
Refreshing to watch the beginning of this series on Sundance Channel, a foreign language entry that catches a moment in recent German history without the usual quintessential archetypes and funny accents of any random American production involving Germans. The tables are turned in fact because it is the American characters speaking German who seem a bit less than convincing. English subtitles are no major distraction, because the script is terse and direct.
As in most German cinema, nothing is left to the imagination. If a character is destined to be a hero or a saint (or something in between) that element is telegraphed in advance by the director's emphasis on a frown, an arched eyebrow, a look of confusion, or a surreptitious stage movement. We know where the series is going by the end of the first episode, yet we identify with the young man at the center of the story irrespective of his opening attitude. There is none of the ambivalence or inchoate suspense found in one of John Le Carré's filmed spy novels.
I am looking forward immensely to viewing the remainder of the series in spite of not believing, really, that many of the easy coincidences, arch villains, clandestine meetings in the woods, and other stereotypical story devices could have actually happened.