Sunday, July 27, 2014

NEW REVIEW: Top of the Lake

Beautifully filmed, highly atmospheric, haunting, disturbing, curious and compelling, Jane Campion's Top of the Lake is perhaps the series Twin Peaks could have been had it not gone too far down the loony-track.

This Sundance mini-series, now available on Netflix, is a tight seven episodes long, and that is actually one of my only criticisms. It felt a tad bit rushed in the last two episodes and I think that it would have been even more impactful if they had allowed things to develop at a bit slower rate. The material was certainly there to do it.

The story centers around a remote New Zealand lake community, a missing pregnant twelve year old, her vicious and violent father, her adult half-siblings, and the police detective who comes home to the lake and takes on the case.

Elisabeth Moss, well-known for Mad Men, does a phenomenal job here as Detective Robin Griffin. Hers is a character of deeply felt emotion and a dark and tragic history of her own which binds her to Tui, the missing child. She has scenes of tremendous pathos, rage and passion and each of these feels full of authenticity and palpable pain. Her performance is complemented by a strong cast and an intense, if not completely original, storyline.

I love haunting and mysterious stories and I am a biased in that respect, but I do think this series is a home-run. It is riveting. I burst out in an unexpected sob at one point, not even aware of how much the event in question would affect me. I could easily re-watch the series, which is always telling.

I am amazed at how much great storytelling and acting there is available on the small screen. Something absolutely better occurs with the ability to watch episodes in succession, as well as with the trend toward a complete story arc rather than the rambling, stretching-out, and tacking-on endless chunks of disjointed plotline that too often occurs in an effort to prolong a series run.

There's a lot to see out there. Let's get crackin'.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Natural Elements (Richard Mason)

I picked this book up at the Dollar Tree. I can't recall ever buying a book there; I somehow suspected they must be pretty awful books if they end up being sold at the Dollar Tree. I'm ready to stand-up and say, "Oops. I might have been wrong." I think this purchase was well worth the dollar I spent.

I found the story very engaging. The main characters are Eloise, a middle-aged hedge fund manager, and her mother, Joan, who at first meeting is in the early stages of dementia. I was very surprised that the book was written by a man. I thought that he did a commendable job of rendering the emotional inner-lives of these women.

The story has two main threads. In one, Eloise makes a terrible business move and is frantically evading the truth of it as long as she can. This thread is fairly suspenseful and also a bit anxiety provoking on Eloise's behalf. In the other thread, Joan is first gradually, and later rapidly, slipping away into a world of memories and hallucinations. The threads are tied together as Eloise is left with the task of seeing that Joan is cared for in her declining years.

Although Richard Eder of the New York Times found the dementia sequences to be heavy-handed, I actually found them to be deeply moving. I wonder how much time Mr. Elder has actually spent with people whose minds are slipping away as they age. It can be a deeply complex process for the whole family. I thought this author's rendering did a wonderful job of giving Joan's character dignity in her clear moments as well as her hallucinatory ones. I found it touching and insightful that the author gave beauty and comfort to her visions.

Watching your parents grow old, trying to help them, but trying to live your own life...these are the themes of middle-age. It can be a very hard time, plagued with the guilt of never doing as much as you've thought you should. This book authentically addresses what it feels like for both mother and daughter as they dance this painful last dance together.

As a bonus, the story at one point takes you on a trip to South Africa and recalls the Boer Wars and the British concentration camps. Having known not a darn thing about this subject, it really was a fascinating passage.

Somehow, I think women may relate more to this book, but perhaps that is simply sexist. It was definitely two-thumbs up for me.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS: Two on Netflix--Out of the Furnace and Dear Zachary

Excuse the language, but profanity provides the most apt description for this 2013 Scott Cooper film.  

1. This movie is depressing as sh*t.
2. Woody Harrelson is scary as f*ck.
3. Christian Bale acts his ass off.

The critics were very 50/50 on this one, mostly because they found it to be a tired, poorly written and pointless script about machismo and revenge.  Despite that it could have been a much better film were it more focused, I actually still liked this movie very much.

The cinematography is outstanding, capturing the grimly realistic and painful place where people work crappy, carcinogenic jobs, but couldn't even tell you what 'carcinogenic' means. The characters were all very plausible and authentic. Along with the aforementioned, the cast is comprised of a stellar group of folks who can really act: Forest Whitaker, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, and Willem Dafoe.

I cannot say enough about Christian Bale. Of course, he's a terrific actor, but I appreciated his performance more in this film than in any other of his that I have seen. He has three incredible scenes with Zoe Saldana.

It is no easy feat to establish the depth of a relationship in three scenes, but in this case they do it so successfully that, as a watcher, you believe it and you feel deeply moved by it. The first scene together caught my eye because it felt so authentic and, well, loving. Just a brief scene, but truly you felt this man and this woman were in love...really in love, not the cheesy movie-love. It set up so well their next scene together that I shed a tear and I read that other people who saw the film also cried at this second scene. Who can do that? Establish such a connection in one quick scene that the next time you see this couple together you are moved to tears?

Anyway, I should let you know that the film is pretty violent in spots, bleak and depressing throughout. I did enjoy it, though, and I would watch it again to see Christian Bale's performance. He's that good.

This 2008 documentary by Kurt Kuenne is one part love-letter to his best friend, his best friend's son, and his best friend's parents, and one part Dateline murder expose. 

The direction is sharp and clever and keeps things moving. It also manages to memorialize these events, and Andrew Bagley, in a way that is never maudlin, yet utterly heartbreaking at every turn. 

I remember seeing Andrew's story on Dateline, but having some prior knowledge of it did not lessen the impact of this documentary at all.  The sequence of events following the actual murder are shocking and devastating. It's well done and worth seeing. Have some kleenex handy, though.