“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players . . .” William Shakespeare
Normally it’s a cliché to start a review with a quote from The Bard, but with Slings and Arrows it’s practically required. Despite the contemporary setting, Shakespeare is essentially a main character. Not a scene goes by without a mention of, an allusion to, or a quotation from the playwright himself. This is television’s ode to Shakespeare, and a beautiful one at that. The best part about the show however, is that you don’t need to have read a word of his works to enjoy the series. While it’s true that familiarity with his plays is rewarded throughout the series, the fundamental core of the show can be appreciated by anybody.
The show depicts a Canadian Shakespeare troupe struggling to keep their personal drama from affecting their stage drama. It does this without ever verging into melodramatic territory, and this is where the success of the series lies: in its effortless ability to highlight the subtle theatricality of life, and the profound and human experiences the theater provides. This is also a show about people stuck inside a profession that they love, even while it consumes them whole. Their biggest accomplishments in life are just a collection of fleeting moments that are over before they even begin . . . much like life itself. Also like life itself, the show is filled with plenty of humor, and rivals even some of the best comedies at times.
The talent is excellent across the board, but the show’s leading man is the real gem of the series. Paul Gross stars as Geoffrey Talent, a somewhat mentally unstable washed-up theater actor who hesitantly returns to his old theater troupe. Outside of the protagonist however, Slings and Arrows knows that “there are no small parts,” because every character gets their moment to shine within a given episode, and just about all of them receive a satisfying ending by the time the show ends. With only three short seasons (six episodes each), it’s hardly time-consuming, and is more rewarding than most network dramas that lasted over 100 episodes.
“Discovering the object of the game is the object of the game.”
When we grow up, we tend to feel a void in our lives where our childlike imagination used to be. We outgrow it because it’s no longer appropriate for us to play “make-believe,” never realizing that reality can seem so empty without it. Nicholas Van Orton is an adult man, leading a very adult life. It was Jack Torrance from The Shining who famously said: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The same could be said about Nicholas, who has more money than he knows what to do with, and nobody to spend it on. Favoring career advancement and material possessions over meaningful relationships and life experience, Nicholas is only now starting to feel the emptiness that was always there. That is, until he played The Game.
When his deadbeat brother shows up out of the blue to celebrate Nicholas’ birthday over lunch, Nicholas is given an opportunity to play The Game. One character calls it “a vacation, but one that comes to you.” That’s putting it lightly. With no information other than a business card that reads “Consumer Recreation Services,” he gets thrusts into a life-changing experience. The Game (1997) really hits its stride when Nicholas starts to lose his grasp on reality. When does The Game end and real life begin? It’s a question that the audience will be asking themselves, and the film does well in blurring those lines as neatly as it does.
David Fincher (director of The Social Network,Fight Club,Se7en) sets the film primarily at night, highlighting the extremely dark nature of such an experience. When you take away a man’s distinction between real life and fantasy, it’s no longer just fun and games. Adults could stand to let some of their childhood imagination back into their lives, but it’s clear that there’s such a thing as too much. One doesn’t play The Game, so much as gets played by The Game. And that’s true of the film as well.
Actions have consequences. It’s a simple lesson that’s easy to forget. While we stress teaching this concept to children, often we forget to stop and remind ourselves of it. Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is a terrific film that explores the choices we make, and the resulting consequences we must live with. While it’s no surprise that this Iranian film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay in the 2012 Academy Awards, it’s still a rare feat for a foreign film to break into such a prestigious and traditionally American category. Farhadi’s script is extremely easy to follow for American audiences (aside from a few cultural idiosyncrasies), while offering psychologically and socially complex moral situations.
In the film, an Iranian couple named Nader and Simin are on the verge of separating. Simin wishes to leave for America and take their 11-year old daughter with her, however Nader wants to stay in Iran to take care of his ailing father and does not want his daughter to leave him. Both of them want the separation, but are divided on how to handle it. Due to the state of disagreement, the Iranian courts prohibit them from separating, deeming their squabble as insufficient grounds for a divorce. Forced to stay together, tensions are high and conflict arises.
What I’ve described above is not a plot summary, but merely a catalyst. I had not heard anything about this movie before seeing it and was therefore much more engrossed in the film as these situations developed naturally and somewhat surprisingly. The script was nominated because of how organically these conflicts present themselves and how nuanced the characters are written. These characters feel like real people and it is hard to pick a side because none of them are wrong or evil, they’re just on opposite sides of a conflict. This was in my top three films of last year, and sadly I only got to see it once (unlike Drive, which I saw four times) But that’s what makes A Separation so profound, everything about it will stay with you long after the credits roll…
[NOTE: I chose not to add the trailer to this page, for I feel it gives away important plot points that don't even occur until halfway through. Watch it at your own risk, but I implore you not to.]
Jeff, Who Lives at Home is a very flawed film. If one looks too closely at the seams, it will unravel in the blink of an eye. It’s also my favorite film of 2012 so far. This might seem like an insult to this year in film, but with new films from Wes Anderson, PIXAR, Joss Whedon and Ridley Scott, it is anything but. The innate problem with Jeff, Who Lives at Home is rooted in everyone’s own beliefs. It’s a film about fate and destiny, and therefore blurs the line between contrivances and plot mechanics. You’ll either think the film is offensively implausible and totally pretentious, or you’ll think it’s surprisingly sweet and that the “contrivances” are the point of the film. Either way, it’s worth a shot.
The film follows Jeff during the course of one day as he tries to run one simple errand but gets needlessly distracted by “signs from the universe.” Jeff is a very kind man, and he believes that everything happens for a reason and that the only way to uncover your destiny is to follow the signs the universe lays out for you. He’s also 30-something years old, living in his mother’s basement and has quite a recreational drug habit. His older brother Pat is the antithesis of Jeff. He is materialistic, self-absorbed and very cynical. However Pat also does have a job, a wife and a home of his own. Needless to say, they don’t get along very well.
This is a film that sneaks up on you. It seems aimless and meandering, but the whole time it is building towards something. Whether you call that fate or coincidence, is up to you. It’s one of the most uplifting films I’ve seen in a long time. The opening scene is an important one, as it lays out exactly how the film will unfold, but that’s easy to miss on your first viewing. Jeff, Who Lives at Home has a little bit of everything, so I highly recommend it. As long as you check your reservations at the door.
The film Hanna is a typical coming of age story. When it opens in a tundra setting, the protagonist Hanna is doing what all 16 year old girls like to do on the weekend: hunting a wild reindeer. After she has successfully killed her target, a man sneaks up on her and the two engage in a brief but tense fight. It’s apparent that neither are fighting to hurt the other, and it turns out the man is her father, and that this is just another Saturday morning for the two. It is revealed that Hanna and her father have been living on their own, completely disconnected from civilization as we know it and her father has brought her up to be a deadly assassin and a walking encyclopedia. She may not have a driver’s license like most girls want at her age, but she can snap your neck in less than three seconds flat.
Hanna is a breath of fresh air into the stale genre that is suspense thriller. During the very few and surprisingly brief action scenes, the camera rarely cuts away (a cheap trick that way too many action blockbusters are guilty of these days). What’s particularly engaging about this thriller is that director Joe Wright is more interested in the development of Hanna’s character than he is in staging those elaborate action sequences, and it makes for a very rewarding hybrid of traditional coming of age story and international espionage thriller, all filtered through a fairy tale lens. It’s a testament to Joe Wright’s talent that the film comes off as anything but a mess, despite all this mixing and matching.
Saoirse Ronan (I don’t know how to pronounce it either) gives a very nuanced performance in Hanna, as a teenage girl by loyalty to her father and the desire to grow up independently from him. The film is at its best when it follows Hanna’s travels with a lovable family of tourists and explores how far removed she really is from society. Hanna is a grade A anti-thriller that excels when it’s pulling its punches instead of throwing them.
One of literature’s oldest and most distinguished characters has received a major revamp, and with a surprisingly fresh outcome. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes, and he breathes new life into him with every quip. The concept is as simple as setting Sherlock Holmes’ adventures within a modern day setting, and seeing how it would translate. The answer is: surprisingly well. The first episode of the miniseries is a little heavy handed in its use of technology (one side character won’t stop texting throughout the entire scene). But it is ingenious in the way that the show uses its source material as a commentary on how some things never change. For instance in the original story, Dr. Watson was a returning Afghanistan war veteran who served as a surgeon in the British Army, and it’s the exact same situation in this version. This version simply expands on that archetype with modern day sensibilities because Dr. Watson (or “John” as he is more commonly referred to as) is possibly suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a psychosomatic limp.
The miniseries is only three episodes long, devoting each episode to a single case. But it’s the quality that counts here, not quantity. There are some remarkable sequences sprinkled throughout the series that fully utilize modern day film-making, as in the pilot when Sherlock is observing a crime scene and the audience becomes privy to his mental process as words flood the screen highlighting exactly what he’s thinking without giving away the deductions. Without spoiling too much, the show has a master plan in mind that ties all three episodes together nicely and will leave the viewer satisfied as well as wanting more. The sense of continuity is wonderful and leads to a more polished series.
The first season (or “series” since it’s a British show) is available now on DVD (check our catalog), and I can not recommend it enough. The second season is coming to American airwaves at the beginning in May as part of the PBS Masterpiece Mysteries series, so now is the perfect time to start this fantastic miniseries. Sherlock takes a premise and cast of characters that was growing stale (mostly thanks to poor choices that recent adaptations have made – I’m looking at you Guy Ritchie), and updates it for the modern world while delivering a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that fans deserve. Whether you’re a diehard Holmes fan who will enjoy picking up on the references to the original stories, or if you’re not as familiar with this undisputed classic as you’d like to admit, Sherlock is a fantastic series that’s worthy on its own merit, source material notwithstanding.
“Morally you’re supposed to overcome your impulses, but there are times you don’t want to overcome them.” So says one of the characters in Roman Polanski’s newest film: Carnage. It’s a sentiment that only brings itself to light gradually throughout the film, until finally the characters are devoid of any moral sensibilities which is humorously amplified in this intensely claustrophobic film. The film is very condensed (both in running time and setting), since it takes place entirely in a cramped New York apartment and is told in real-time (meaning the film never jumps in time). The set-up is as follows: when two boys in grade school get into an altercation, the parents of the children get together to converse about the event in a civilized manner. Needless to say, nobody is acting civilized by the end of the film.
Carnage is a dark comedy for sure, seeing that all the laughs are at the expense of the characters’ discomfort and uncomfortable interplay, but the over-the-top performances (that are more akin to the stage than the screen) keep the film from veering into depressing territory. The film is funny because although the situation takes place in a state of heightened reality, it all comes from a place of truth. All parents have delusional perceptions of their children and it’s only natural for them to become irrational once somebody threatens those perceptions. The script doesn’t look down on these characters, it simply highlights the comedic absurdity of adults who believe they are above acting like children (which we’re all guilty of).
All four actors put in wonderful performances across the board as the two central couples: Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly), and Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz). This film would be nothing without committed actors and thankfully all four are up to the task. John C. Reilly is terrific as Michael, a middle class door to door salesman who takes pride in his mediocrity and pessimism, and Jodie Foster’s Penelope is pitch-perfect as the passive-aggressive (later, just aggressive) wife that instigated the meeting. Kate Winslet and Cristoph Waltz (in another standout role since Inglorious Basterds) have a wonderful chemistry (or lackthereof) as an elitist couple that are really only there as a courtesy.
Making the most out of its tiny setting and small cast, Carnage is a wonderful little film that proves the power of writing and acting.