Saturday, September 30, 2017

Film review: The Commune (Kollektivet)

The Commune (Kollektivet)
Denmark, 2015
dir. Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg is good at making movies that hit you over the head like an oncoming train and often subvert your expectations. His film The Celebration was utterly stunning in this regard. I remember thinking I had a reasonably good idea of what it was about before I watched it and being absolutely blindsided by it. Similarly, The Hunt is a powerful piece of cinema that doesn't go as you might think it will.

The Commune is not quite up to the calibre of those films but it is still interesting and worth watching. And like with The Celebration, Vinterberg manages to make it not what you think it will be. The story centres around a married couple, Anna (Trine Dyrholm) and Erik (Ulrich Thomsen), who inherit a huge house. Instead of selling it, at the wife's urging, the couple and their 14 year old daughter Freja (Martha Sofie Wallstrom Hansen) move in to the house and invite some friends and acquaintances to move in with them and form a sort of commune. The first invitee, Ole, is obviously someone Anna has been attracted to in the past, so the red flags go up immediately. How will this all go terribly wrong?

Now at this point all I could think was, oh god, living in this sort of set up would be sheer hell. No other drama necessary, just the thought of sharing space with that many people makes me shudder. But Vinterberg does not take us where we think he will.

Against my expectations, I liked most of the characters. Unfortunately, one criticism I have of the movie is that it doesn't flesh out the secondary characters enough, which is a bit of a waste since all the actors are so good. The only character I disliked entirely was Erik. He's completely insufferable, a totally unselfaware jerk who feels put upon but doesn't realize his actions have gotten him where he is. There are a few things in the movie that made me wonder if Erik is supposed to be a stand in for the director, and for Vinterberg's sake, I sure hope not.

Although I thought Trine Dyrholm did a magnificent job as Anna, my very favourite characters were Ditte (Anne Gry Henningsen) and Steffen (Magnus Millang) and their son, Vilads (Sebastian Gronnegaard Milbrat). At first I feared they would be unbearably twee and annoying, but they quickly grew on me. Vilads is only six but has a heart condition, so he frequently announces that he will not live past nine. Instead of sealing him in a bubble, his parents let him live the life of a normal little boy and experience to the fullest the life he's been given.

I suppose that is what Vinterberg might be trying to get at. Life does not always go how you think it will. You can struggle and rail against it or you can try to live as fully as possible, awkward and painful as that may end up being. Life is messy and humans are imperfect, but generally capable of meaningful connection even in the face of conflict. It's not an original premise, but it's interesting to see what Vinterberg has done with it.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Netflix Review: Peaky Blinders

My neighbour asked me today if the BBC series Peaky Blinders is like Downton Abbey. Now, if I had to think of a show that was more unlike Downton Abbey despite sharing a similar time period and country of origin, I'd be hard pressed to top Peaky Blinders. We recently watched all three seasons available on Netflix and holy hell, it is quite the ride.

It's set in Birmingham, with the first season taking place in 1919. The Peaky Blinders are a violent mob run by the Shelby crime family, headed by Tommy Shelby (the oddly beautiful Cillian Murphy). The Shelbys run the cops, the bars, and the factories in Birmingham and if you cross them, they'll cut your eyes out by whipping you across the face with the razor blades concealed in the peaks of their tweed caps. (Hence: Peaky blinders.)

Definitely not Downton Abbey

The series is gorgeously filmed, with grimy but somehow warmly glowing shots of the rough streets of Birmingham. The soundtrack is full of anachronistic music from the likes of Nick Cave (he does the theme song), PJ Harvey, David Bowie, and Leonard Cohen.  I found it jarring at first, but weirdly, it works. The acting is excellent, particularly from Cillian Murphy, Paul Anderson (Arthur Shelby), and Helen McCrory (Aunt Polly). 

The characters are unlikeable at first (and sometimes throughout), but you find yourself cheering for them eventually anyway, almost against your will. Tommy is a conundrum: very intelligent, coldly calculating,but also, paradoxically, a romantic and a decorated war hero. Tommy's brothers, Arthur and John, are on the one hand sheer brutes but they, too, are revealed to be more than just one note characters. The women of Peaky Blinders are also fascinating, fully rounded characters with a lot of backstory and wills of iron, especially Tommy's Aunt Polly, the family matriarch. Polly, played by the fabulous Helen McCrory, is a pragmatic, seemingly cold woman who has depths that are revealed slowly over the course of the series. Grace, the Northern Irish woman with the lovely singing voice who applies to be barmaid at the boys' pub, the Garrison, is similarly much more than she appears to be at first. The thing is, no matter how awful the Shelbys are, there's always someone else who is worse. At one point, this honour goes to Sam Neill's sociopathic Police Inspector Campbell; at another, to Alfie Solomons, Tom Hardy's bombastic leader of a Jewish London gang.

One aspect of the show I find quite interesting and am curious as to its authenticity is its portrayal of Roma culture (the Shelby family are part Roma and self identify as "gypsies," with deep ties to that community). There is a lot of discrimination against Roma in Britain, and there are many reminders of this in the uneasy relationship the Shelbys have with that side of their heritage. 

Although there are some over the top moments and ridiculous plot twists, if you can stomach the Sopranos-esque violence, Peaky Blinders is compelling period storytelling. I'll be awaiting the fourth season with eager anticipation.  




Sunday, January 15, 2017

Netflix review: Orange is the New Black

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-9uo4O_y0u4M/VEuWJOXIjYI/AAAAAAABijs/OGkIlj9mp-Y/s1600/orange-new-black.jpg
Netflix promotional poster for Orange is the New Black

A few years ago I listened to an episode of The Moth podcast where author Piper Kerman told a story about her time in prison. Kerman had been an upper middle class graduate of an all women's college, working as a PR person, when she was sentenced to prison for a previous drug smuggling conviction. At the end of the episode, the announcer mentioned that Kerman had written a book called Orange is the New Black about her experiences in prison, and that there would be a new series on Netflix created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds) based on a fictionalized version of that book.

We started watching the series and I honestly didn't have a lot of high expectations for it. Although it seemed possible from Kerman's Moth episode, I wasn't entirely sure if Kohan's take on the story would address issues like classism and racism. I felt slightly uncomfortable at the idea of being entertained by a story of women in prison if it did not address the problems inherent in the system.

However, I was pleasantly surprised, and as I've watched each season in turn, my respect for the show has grown. For one thing, it is consistently the best show on TV (Netflix, cable, whatever) that features such a diverse group of women. There is a wide range of races, ages, body types, sexual orientations, gender identities, social classes, and situations represented. It is so important to see such a vast range of women interacting with each other, forming friendships and relating to each other, rather than always having their stories filtered through the eyes of men, if they are told at all. It is something I absolutely love about the show.

And it does not shy away from some fairly intense issues. Some I can think of off the top of my head:

  • the overrepresentation of women of colour in prison
  • treatment of trans women in prison
  • abuse of power by guards
  • rape
  • rights of pregnant women in prison
  • racial profiling
  • homophobia
  • ageism
  • labour issues--treatment of prisoners as indentured labour for large corporations; treatment of guards' unions; privatization and for-profit prisons
  • the proliferation of prison as a moneymaking venture in the United States
  • treament of mentally ill prisoners
  • treatment of mentally ill people in society in general (thus causing some to end up in prison when it isn't the best place for them and they actually need treatment
The show isn't without its flaws (which are unfortunately kind of hard to talk about without revealing fairly significant plot points)--one way in which it could improve is to hire some writers of colour--but overall it is one of the best shows I have seen to discuss women's issues and to portray such a vibrantly diverse cast of characters. I am eagerly awaiting the next season.