Reviews

27 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
6/10
Standard overview marred by a lack of balance
9 June 2011
This is a decent-enough historical overview of Jerusalem and the earlier portions reflect recent research. There is also some lovely photography. But the coverage of the post-Roman periods is uneven, uninspired and marred greatly by out-of-date stereotypes, particularly the treatment of the three religions who share the city: saintly-victim Jews, benevolent Muslim overlords and bloodthirsty Christian crusaders. When a documentary completely glosses over the destruction of Muslim Arab culture in the Levant perpetrated by 12th-century Kurdish general Saladin, in order to concentrate only on his eventual contest with the "foreign" Christians, you know there's a lack of balance. When the subsequent eight centuries are skipped over in the space of five minutes, to concentrate on how "wonderful" things are today, that shows some truly lumpy coverage. It's a two-hour documentary. There's just no excuse for practically ignoring that period. Not that any one group in the Holy Land was wonderful at all times--nor is it necessary to ignore the good points of the Muslim occupations of the city--but there are so many holes in this documentary that you'd probably learn more about Jerusalem from what they left out than from what they put in. Too bad. It's still recent and could have been so much better.
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9/10
How Not to Conduct a Criminal Investigation
8 January 2007
Warning: Spoilers
To some extent, this is a fairly ordinary treatment of a story of injustice, with the usual montages and dramatic courtroom and prison scenes of the subgenre, Canadian style. It is raised above the average by some excellent performances (notably, Ian Tracey as Milgaard and Gabrielle Rose as his mother) and the power of the story itself. Tracey has to carry much of the emotional weight by himself. Those who would call this story "over-romantic" and "over-dramatized" should take note that Tracey evokes considerable sympathy for Milgaard while making no attempt to soften the edges of his personality, either his early less-than-upstanding behavior or his later serious dysfunction in prison.

Tracey fully deserved his Gemini and Leo grand slam. He best conveys Milgaard's decline through abuse and sheer boredom over 23 years via an increasingly dysfunctional interaction with a prison yard wall that culminates in ranting to himself while his mother tries to hug him. Rose's performance as Milgaard's staunchly supportive mother is very strong, but wouldn't work without Tracey's. Tracey manages to show how judging Milgaard's guilt based mainly on whether or not he was a nice kid back in '69 is as appalling now as it was then. That it was, in fact, criminal in this case.

Everyone involved in perpetuating this farce of injustice, from the court system that failed Milgaard and continues to duck investigation right down to the bullies who picked on his sister in school, should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves. One might, if one were very generous, accept the original conviction as too much reliance on coincidence (though the coerced and otherwise tainted testimony makes this a hard sell). But the best explanation that the authorities in Saskatchewan can come up with for dragging their feet on reexamining Milgaard's case, on releasing him, on clearing his name over a decade after DNA testing became available, on convicting Larry Fisher (the actual rapist killer of Gail Miller) and on holding a public inquiry into the whole mess, is that Milgaard would have got out much sooner if he had just admitted his nonexistent guilt. I'm sure that the women of Saskatchewan feel so much better knowing that a rapist and murderer can get out of prison early if he just says he's sorry, but an innocent man can stay locked up for 23 years for insisting he's innocent. It seems quite clear that had Milgaard died in prison, his name never would have been cleared, that the authorities would have even preferred such a result.

I'm also sure that the film dramatized and condensed events and all the rest, but the facts that are out there are already bad enough. The two detectives, for example, who interrogated Milgaard and failed to get the real killer, should have done some hard time, themselves. The film does a very good job of showing how one man's conviction not only wrecked his life, but also wrecked the lives of his family, the friends forced to testify against him, Gail Miller's life (which was cut short) and the lives of the women whom Larry Fisher continued to attack. Maybe Fisher's victims and their families should sue the justice system. They certainly have cause.

Anyone who thinks that CSI et al's "guilty until proved innocent" approach is an advancement in law enforcement should be force-fed this film. There is a reason why English law (on which both Canadian and American law are based) states "innocent until proved guilty" and "better that a hundred guilty men go free than that an innocent man should be punished". This film shows, graphically, why.
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Intelligence (2005–2007)
10/10
Not your granddad's CBC show...
11 October 2006
From the literally up-in-the-air first scene to the rueful end-of-the-day drink between reluctant allies, smuggler Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey) and his top-cop handler Mary Spalding (Klea Scott), in the series opener, this show moves with startling speed. Those who found last year's Da Vinci City Hall and the Intelligence pilot off-putting in their complexity should enjoy the series anyway. The pilot juggled maybe too many balls and sometimes felt jagged as a result. The show does not have that problem. It goes down smooth as Irish whisky.

The look is cool and different, with a sinuous style--think Miami Vice in 21st century Vancouver. Tracey is fascinating as the conflicted, but ultimately good-hearted, Jimmy. Talk about a guy trapped in a pit full of snakes. Scott is similarly fine as the professionally and personally beleaguered Mary. If you've been missing Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect, you'll quickly get hooked on Mary's tough, no-nonsense style. The fact that she's not your usual little-girl-lost blonde we seem to get in every cop show these days certainly doesn't hurt. It's really nice to get a modern noir story with protagonists you actually like. Jimmy and Mary, at least so far, are the good guys. It's just that they're very unusual good guys.

This is the kind of show that could claim a wide range of audience if it can get half a chance against the heavy-hitters on Tuesday night. Let's hope.
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1/10
I want those 89 minutes back
17 March 2006
This mockumentary is godawful. The jokes are lame and the actors mug through their roles with no sense of timing or subtlety, telegraphing every punchline. The "history" is also poorly thought-out. Not only does the film ask us to buy that the Confederacy annexed all of the Union, but Central and South America and the rest of the continental U.S. as we know, it, too.

But not Canada. One of the stupidest bits was the idea that the Asian population would grow in California because new Chinese immigrants couldn't believe they would be enslaved upon arrival. As if enough Asians haven't moved to Canada over the years because they didn't like the conditions that America did offer. Surely, in this scenario, they would have simply emigrated to Canada, instead.

Basically, the film wants to drop us into the same spot where we are now, but following a Confederate victory one hundred and forty years before. To this end, the film's makers leave out all sorts of inconvenient historical trends and incidents like industrialism (the real reason why slavery became economically nonviable), Marxism, World War I, the expansion of the British Empire, the rise of Arab petropower and the Cold War. Russia doesn't even get a look-in. And the bit about Harriet Tubman and Lincoln in blackface is just straight-up offensive.

Strangely enough, modern Confederates in this film also share the views of modern extreme right-wing Republicans in our timeline. Why? People in the Confederacy were as varied a lot as people in the Union. Why automatically assume that we would have a repressed, conservative, homophobic, antisemitic Bible Belt dominating a Confederate world just because some fanatics who insist on perpetuating the conflict culturally are like this? This seems like an ignorant excuse to insult Southerners--not just White (both Christian and Jewish) but also Black, Hispanic and Asian. Nobody in the South gets off without a good slap. It's as if the filmmakers were looking for an excuse to indulge in every vicious Southern stereotype they could manage without causing a huge uproar. And no, deliberately making the Confederates unrealistically expansionist so that the filmmakers could turn the Japanese (whose army murdered tens of millions of Asians before and during WWII) and the Central and South Americans (who have their own obsessions with skin color and racial ancestry) into blameless victims of Confederate aggression doesn't make the stereotypes any more palatable.

As the Shaw quote that starts off the film notes, you'd better make people laugh while you're telling them the truth. This film does neither: it's not funny and it's neither honest nor truthful. It only exists to get a rise out of people. All it got out of me was a desire to get my money back.
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Ice Men (2004)
9/10
Flawed and claustrophobic, but ultimately moving
31 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Following his domineering father's death, uptight yuppie Vaughn (Martin Cummins) buys the family cabin from his mother. One weekend, he invites his three childhood friends up to the cabin for his best friend, Bryan's (David Hewlett), birthday. The four boys have grown into troubled men. Vaughn is angry and abusive to his friends after being dumped by his girlfriend, Renee (a less than compelling Brandy Ledford). Copying his father, he tries to play alpha dog of his little pack. Birthday boy Bryan (David Hewlett) is a whiny alcoholic who cheats on both his wife and Vaughn. Jon (Greg Spottiswood), a talented (and gay) photographer, is desperate to win a rent-paying contract from Vaughn. Self-involved fitness instructor Steve (astonishingly buff James Thomas), is so deep in the closet that he's determined to wed his clingy girlfriend simply because his friends think she's hot. His subsequent fling with Jon, needless to say, complicates his life considerably.

Into this volatile toxic waste spill drives Trevor (Ian Tracey), Vaughn's colorful gambler brother, whom Steve has furtively invited up for the weekend. Trevor's attempts to rebuild burned bridges are complicated by Vaughn's self-righteous rage and denial about their abusive father and Trevor's suicidal desperation over a thirty-thousand-dollar gambling debt. None of this stops Trevor from effortlessly taking away the lead dog position from his baby brother and playing matchmaker/confidant to Jon and Steve, even as he becomes the lightning rod for the four younger men's anger and disappointment over their failed lives. Unbeknownst to the others, the ice-covered lake in front of the cabin where their father drowned himself seems to be calling Trevor home. Trevor's eventual breakdown under the pressure of being the designated scapegoat forces each of the others to face up to their own problems in a dramatic climax.

The characters (with one crucial exception) don't get enough time to establish their depth before the final scene, though the actors were clearly game for what looked like a very rough shoot (particularly for Tracey and Cummins). Cummins shows Vaughn's pain and confusion well with minimal dialogue when Vaughn finally confronts his demons in the shape of his father's antler-decked throne. Unfortunately, the script forces him to either pout or yell for most of the movie, aside from one embarrassing and self-flagellating scene with his ex and the strong conclusion. Similarly, Thomas gets no chance to establish Steve's reasons for the homophobia and self-hatred that make him reject potential soulmate Jon until the last scene. Nor do we ever find out why he is so protective of Trevor, despite Trevor's sardonic insistence on taking Jon's side. And Hewlett gives Bryan no depth whatsoever. But then, I've never got the attraction of Hewlett. His fans may feel differently. There's certainly a lot of him in this, but I felt Bryan was the only character who didn't grow at all.

Spottiswood fares better. In the wake of Steve's rejection, Jon struggles to get the others to accept his sexual orientation (not to mention his unconventional occupation) and vents to the sympathetic Trevor. Spottiswood does a good job of showing Jon as sensitive, but not weak. He more than holds his own in the hockey game that Trevor organizes and confronts Vaughn, Steve and Bryan at one point about their latent homophobia. He's outnumbered, but he's no wuss.

Finally, Tracey shines as Trevor. His complex, subversive performance powers the story to its dark conclusion, raising uncomfortable questions about how we blame child abuse victims for their scars while letting their abusers off the hook, especially if both are men. Tracey establishes Trevor as a solitary, troubled soul, burdened by his family-designated role as the Bad Seed. Trevor has fielded free-floating blame from his abusive environment all of his life. It reaches lethal levels at the end when he finally confronts his brother about their failed relationship, a loaded gun to his own head. He chain-smokes his way through the organizing of a string of good deeds for the others--ice-fishing on the lake, creating a hockey rink for the men to play on, engineering a poker game, starting up the hot tub that his brother begrudges his buddies and retrieving and setting up a projector for a bunch of home movies from the group's childhood. Yet, each creative act demands a blood sacrifice--while Jon and Steve have their passionate fling in the other room, Trevor matter-of-factly burns himself with a cigarette. Later, while fishing, he cuts himself with a fishhook. This latter act seems, by some disturbed logic, to spark his idea for the hockey rink. The very things he uses for comfort become instruments of punishment to appease and quiet the voice in his head that brands him a failure.

The film's clear plot line wraps up in a moving, yet mainly unresolved, ending. There are some strong metaphors and themes--the ice and snow, obviously, and the cold and deadly lake outside. The deer that Vaughn shoots appears to represent both his brother and himself. His guilty attempt to hide his deed is the first true crack in his angry facade. The use of nudity also shows the various ways the characters hide (and are forced to reveal) their secrets. The music does a nice job of setting the mood, particularly at the end. Also, both Jon and Trevor are presented as creative, intelligent, educated men who, ironically, fare a lot better in the wild than they do in civilization. The contrast between brutish, Yuppified civilization and creative, zen-like wilderness is subtle but pervasive. Nor is the latter approach presented as unambiguously healthy in a world that rewards working in a box over living a free life. The film tries to show the effects of the characters' actions on each other, not preach. No, it's not a perfect movie, but ultimately, it's a satisfying one, leaving plenty to think about after the final credits.
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Intelligence: Pilot (2005)
Season 1, Episode 0
10/10
A quick, twisty, clever thriller from Canada
28 November 2005
"Intelligence" involves what happens when a Vancouver dope smuggler, Jimmy Reardon (played by Ian Tracey in his first leading role in years), gets his hands on the files of informants for the local Organized Crime Unit. The OCU's chief, Mary Spalding (played by Klea Scott), is being headhunted by CSIS. She is anxious to recruit Reardon as a high-level informant while also wanting the files back with no harm done to any of the informants. But her scuzzy second in command, Ted Altman (played by Matt Frewer), is equally anxious to bring her down and save his own job after losing said files to a car thief. His underhanded methods lead to ugly things even as Reardon and Spalding forge a tentative alliance.

While it's no secret that this is a potential TV-movie pilot for CBC, the final product is a full-fledged feature film that makes recent British and American cinema thriller offerings look pathetic. The usual subtle Canadian acting and cynical writing pair up nicely with better-than-usual production values. Vancouver, as itself and not some other city, looks great.

Since this comes from Haddock Entertainment, a huge number of actors and actresses from Da Vinci's Inquest show up. My favorite was a cameo by Alex Diakun as one of Reardon's employees. Matt Frewer struggles a bit with his role, though, since Altman is unfortunately the weak link in the chain, one of Haddock's now just about patented paper-thin bad guys with no realistic motivation. This makes the cliff-hangerish ending more annoying than necessary.

Ian Tracey and Klea Scott, however, both finally get the roles that they deserve as leads and not back-ups to pretty people who can't act. Reardon and Spalding have a fascinating, almost Renaissance Italian, relationship--two great magnates who are inherently good, but are trapped in a dark world that worships ruthlessness. Both of them have underlings who constantly urge them to commit cold and vicious acts, just to show that they aren't "soft". Yet, it's the tough refusal of each one to sink to that lowest moral level that establishes an immediate common ground between them as soon as they meet.

I sincerely hope that the film's makers get their funding for a series, because there is a great deal here to explore. As the Canadians like to say, "It's all good."
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Da Vinci's City Hall (2005–2006)
Boy, is it back
25 October 2005
Watching the new Da Vinci's City Hall after seven seasons of Da Vinci's Inquest is a bit like playing MahJong--same pieces, same board, totally different configurations. Or, as the show's new motto goes: "Same Da Vinci. Same Vancouver. More lives in the balance." DVI is not the first show to get a face lift. It's just more honest than other shows in changing its name when it did it. As usual, the beginning of this season is a lot brighter and harder, cinematographically-speaking, than the end of last season, reflecting the change in external lighting between Vancouver's summer (when filming for each season starts) and Vancouver's winter (when filming ends). But the new show also comes across as brighter and harder, especially in the opening scene of Da Vinci glad-handing under the harsh lights of a nighttime racetrack.

Everyone is in a different situation: Da Vinci is mayor; Mick Leary is coroner; Angela Kosmo is back in Homicide but paired up with an old enemy; Chick is in Homicide; Zack is working undercover for Da Vinci; Leo Shannon has retired and "moved on", as Chick puts it; Bill the Police Chief, and his familiar Charlie Klotchko, are still around but chafing at having Da Vinci for their new boss. And there are new friends and potential enemies to match the new font in the new show titles--Da Vinci's two "handlers", an angry businessman, an even angrier gay rights advocate and a really torqued off homeless advocate. Some of these new characters are interesting, but most are pretty flat compared to the regulars, who have the advantage of lots of show history; introductory exposition is kept to a skeletal minimum in this pilot. Hopefully, these new characters will plump out eventually, but if they don't, I'm sure the regulars will take up the slack. The irony of the premiere's title--"Zero to Sixty Pretty Quick"--is that not only Da Vinci is expected to get up to speed in an hour, but so is the audience. It's a brand, new show; but it's also season eight. Vintage Da Vinci.
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Law & Order (1990–2010)
A once-great show in terminal decline
18 August 2005
Once upon a time, there was a great show called Law & Order that had a neat, fresh premise--show a murder case from the discovery of the crime all the way through to the end of the trial. It was current and topical, ripping off cases from the headlines and thinly (sometimes very thinly) fictionalizing them. Creator Dick Wolf's ruthlessness toward his cast also ensured that no one was safe. Sometimes, the detectives or prosecutors ended up victims themselves.

Fifteen years later, it has gone through numerous cast changes and spawned three spin-offs. Alas, despite occasional shots of the old brilliance in episodes like "Collision", it has also sunk deep into the morass of Dick Wolf's right-wing obsessions in the past six years. Half the time, I can't tell just what crime ADA Jack McCoy is trying to prosecute, and his conviction rate, compared to real-life DAs, is laughably low. Often, he seems to be trying people just for being rich, smug jerks. It's also quite irritating that African-Americans are so frequently portrayed only as druggies, pimps, prostitutes or irate professional victims (who always play the race card and get off), despite their appearance in the regular cast. The constant changes to the cast have further eroded the viewer's ability to empathize with the characters. They've become cookie-cutter outlines, not real people. It's not the fault of the actors. They're still good; it's the writing that sucks.

This used to be a brilliant, innovative show. But it has long since jumped the shark and it's not coming back. Let's put it to bed already.
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9/10
Good independent Canadian flick with a cold, cold heart (some spoilers for early events)
5 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This little noir thriller from Vancouver plays out a destructive friendship between a depressed housewife and her childhood friend to an ugly conclusion. Laurel (Helene Joy) and her husband Michael (Ian Tracey) live in Desolation Sound on the coast of British Columbia with their daughter, Margaret (Emily Hirst). The movie doesn't waste time establishing them as a very unhappy family. The first scene shows Laurel and Michael rescuing Margaret from sleepwalking on the roof. The girl also steals things. Then, there's the girl's playmate, a really weird French-Canadian ex-con named Benny (Lothaire Bluteau, who is very good in a perfunctory supporting role). Benny lives in a trailer behind the house and makes creepy puppets with real hair. Yup, everybody has issues in this one. Soon after, Michael, a wildlife photographer, gets an assignment in the Aleutians which could solve the family's financial problems for quite some time. He takes it, despite Laurel clearly being unhappy about his always being on the road and the kid being miserable about his leaving again.

Before he goes, Laurel's best friend, Elizabeth (Jennifer Beals), shows up unexpectedly. Her father has just died and she's fishing for sympathy. She is also an emotional pyromaniac. The film never comes out and says what her problems are, but words like "sociopath" and "borderline personality disorder" seem to float around her like the haze from the cigarettes that she smokes. Nor does she bring out the best in Laurel, who is already running around playing a distorted version of Supermom with a fixed, skeletal grin on her face. Elizabeth makes snarky comments to all and sundry, which Laurel cheerily waves off. Meanwhile, it's clear to the viewer (though not yet to Laurel) that Elizabeth has either seduced Michael already or is working on it really hard.

Michael leaves. Laurel and Elizabeth go out to a bar where Elizabeth gets drunk and confesses to being an alcoholic (as if this weren't already obvious). She also confesses to having slept with Michael. Laurel doesn't take this well, getting up and smacking Elizabeth twice in the face before storming out with Margaret. Later that night, Elizabeth comes home, ingratiates herself back inside the house and then goes up onto the roof...and it all goes pear-shaped after that. Especially once Michael gets back early from his assignment.

The script and direction are cold and clinical, which suits the two main characters and their problems. For a loving mom and smoldering slut, Laurel and Elizabeth are icy to the core. The beautiful, dark BC coastal scenery and some of the background music (particular RedSuedeRed's "Unlike You" during Laurel's scenes of artistic excess) contribute to a general feeling that the characters are drowning in cold water. The acting is good overall, especially Tracey as the husband and Hirst as the little girl. The scenes between father and daughter give the film its only real warmth.

Canadian films often take tired situations and turn them upside down. People don't do what you think they will and things don't turn out the way you expect. This one is a good example and is well worth a look.
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Bodies (2004– )
A mixed medical bag (one spoiler for the last episode)
4 June 2005
Warning: Spoilers
I liked the first three episodes, even though I thought that some of the criticisms of the book on the Amazon.uk site were valid--that Mercurio is overly bitter about his experiences, that the book works best for non-medics who don't have a clue what life in a hospital is really like and that Mercurio's descriptions of how and why senior doctors make the decisions that they do are less than realistic because he never went further than being a junior doctor. And then there's the sex, which seemed especially unlikely considering how much energy you *don't* have in that kind of job. I suspect that reflected more something that Mercurio wished he had done back in his own career than what he actually did. I also felt that, while Mercurio was trying to show a different view of doctors, he in fact reinforced the idea that doctors are somehow separate beings making awful, terrible decisions so that everyone else doesn't have to--including, apparently, nurses, medical technicians, paramedics or any other medical professionals. In reality, the latter groups have far more actual contact with patients than doctors ever do. The show reminded me of a medical version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous exchange with Ernest Hemingway about rich people: "Doctors aren't like us, you know." "Yes, they have more money."

But what really made the show jump the shark for me was when they sectioned the female anaesthesiologist on a psych ward for blowing the whistle on a surgeon. I suppose it was inevitable that a strain of misogyny would show up in this series, considering that it's written by a man about a Maternity ward. Until very recently, male obstetricians and gynaecologists have had such an appalling record for woman- hating that women usually prefer another woman for a GYN, even if she treats them as badly as the female junior doctor does in "Bodies". However, the sectioning was a bit much. You can't just do that, not even for the usual 30 days. If you could, the NHS would not be wrestling with the bad publicity of having seen several dangerously mentally ill people engage in random murders over the past few years--at least one of them after walking off a closed ward with no resistance from medical staff. Staff are not even allowed to use mechanical restraints on out-of-control psych patients in the UK. So, the author's assumption that you could just lock up a respected MD for reporting a colleague is, at best, obsolete and at worst, laughable.
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