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Blog Posts for 2018


SCREENINGS & MEANINGS BLOGS 2018

September: The Human Condition
My most recent peak cinematic experience was in the last days of August at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, home base of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) which starts September 6. (I’ll be seeing about 25 films at this year’s edition. That’s for a later blog.)
This was the screening over three days—August 25, 26, and 28—of the monumental Japanese masterwork The Human Condition directed by Masaki Kobayashi and released as three two-part films—No Greater Love, Road to Eternity, A Soldier’s Prayer—from 1959 to 1961. Presented as part of TIFF’s “Summer in Japan” series, this was a rare chance to take in a theatrical showing of one of the greatest achievements of Japanese cinema. The timing also coincided with the 80th birthday on August 28 of a longtime Ottawa friend George Wright whose son Roger and family with two young granddaughters live in Tokyo. Bringing George with me to his hometown of Toronto for four days made sharing this movie event extra special for us.
Based on a six-volume novel, The Human Condition centres on the existential dilemmas encountered by its protagonist, a gentle soul named Kaji, whose social humanist ideals are repeatedly challenged by the brutal conditions of Japanese-occupied Manchuria during the period of the Second World War.  It’s a transcendent performance by Tasuya Nakadai.  Kaji escapes army service by becoming a supervisor in a savage work camp for Chinese slave labour.
When that ends badly he is forced into military service, faces appalling attacks, must kill to survive and escape, becomes a prisoner of war, then escapes again in wintertime sustained only by the faint hope of a loving reunion with his wife Michito (Michiyo Aratama). 
            Each of the three parts opens in a scene of snow falling; the last moments end in a snowy landscape. It’s as if Kaji is struggling to “stay on the humanism train”, as one piece of dialogue puts it, within the winter of the human condition—the ravaging horrors of imperialism, racism, and total war.
            The scale of the production succeeds in being both truly epic and intensely character-driven, from stunning widescreen cinematography to extreme close-ups that highlight Kaji’s humanity and moral choices tested by life-and-death situations.  Good summary descriptions of the three parts can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Human_Condition_(film_series). See also the link to the essay by Philip Kemp for The Criterion Collection: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1226-the-human-condition-the-prisoner
            Had I seen this extraordinary work earlier it would certainly haven been among the top movie milestones in my film book anthology.  It does go to show that there is always more to discover, past and present, in the wider world of cinema.
            By chance, after returning from the August 26 screening of No Greater Love, the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel was showing the 1961 feature Bridge to the Sun directed by Etienne Périer based on the true story of an American woman who falls in love and marries a Washington D.C.-based Japanese diplomat in the mid-1930s.   She returns with him to Japan, struggling with the cultural differences and strict honour codes of a patriarchal society.  He is posted back to the Japanese embassy in Washington before the war.  Then Pearl Harbour upsets their world as the Japanese are expelled.  With a young daughter she takes the brave decision to follow her husband back to Japan, facing the inevitable suspicions.  Somehow the family manages to survive the vicissitudes of a terrible war. The movie, a France-U.S. coproduction, is not a masterpiece.  But it is a compelling love story and wartime drama.  With that period of Japanese history on my mind, I was glad of the opportunity to watch it again.

October:  Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)
I arrived for the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival mid-way, much later than usual due to heavy demands organizing the 29th One World Film Festival.  It was a Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of 9/11, another Tuesday.  Nearing the TIFF headquarters Bell Lightbox, a group of activists were handing out pamphlets advocating Catalonia’s struggle for independence from Spain because September 11 is also “La Diada”, Catalonia’s National Day.  Not the best coincidence perhaps. 
I finally started writing these notes on October 8 (Canadian Thanksgiving Day), a week to the day after the anniversary of Catalonia’s controversial “illegal” independence referendum in which 90% of Catalans voted “yes” but based on a turnout well below 50%.  As populists everywhere claim to speak for “the people” fed up with the status quo, who are “the people”?  It seems what “the people” want is often far from clear.
Back to the TIFF selections, what follows are notes on the 27 features I managed to squeeze into five-plus days as well as several other high-profile TIFF films, starting with the most controversial that I was only able to see later in Ottawa.  I have given each a letter grade.

Fahrenheit 11/9 (U.S. https://michaelmoore.com/)
Filmmaker provocateur Michael Moore loves Canada and again chose TIFF for the world premiere of his latest incendiary documentary.  The title is a clever play on his 1994 film Fahrenheit 9/11, a blast at the “fictive” Bush presidency that remains both the only documentary to win the top prize ‘palme d’or’ at Cannes and the highest grossing documentary ever at the box office.  The “11/9” reference is to November 9, 2016 when Donald Trump’s presidential triumph in the Electoral College (though not popular vote) was confirmed.
            Although Fahrenheit 11/9 has not enjoyed a similar box-office success, to my mind it is Moore’s best, most important and powerful film in years.  It is much more than a rant against Trump and his ilk because it digs into the systemic institutional rot and corruption that has put private interests ahead of the public interest in a deeply divided and disaffected America. Moore examines this through the lens of the capture of the Michigan state government and the poisoned water crisis in his native Flint.  He excoriates the Republican governor but also doesn’t spare Obama.  The disaffection with the established elites of both main parties is palpable.
In 2016 Moore was one of the few to predict that Trump would carry Michigan.  The anger and disillusion with elite politics as usual was there to be exploited by a demagogue.  At the same time, Moore warns, not too subtly, against the proto-fascist tendencies latent in Trumpism.  In a time of dangerous disruption for American democracy, with the right wing wielding power, Moore finds hope in a counter-mobilization taking place (especially among women, youth, people of colour) who are unafraid to challenge the powers that be. And thank God for that! A
Birds of Passage (Colombia/Denmark/Mexico/France)
I just made it to this gripping drama directed by Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who took part in a post-screening discussion as part of TIFF’s speakers series organized with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.
            The film delves into the genesis of the involvement of Colombian Indigenous peoples, specifically the Wayuu clans in the country’s north, in international drug trafficking, and the violent internecine conflicts that resulted. Indigenous non-professional actors give it a documentary-like authenticity.  The destructive toll of the drug trade leads to tragic consequences, another source of conflict in a country long wracked by internal divisions. B+
Through Black Spruce (Canada)
Don McKellar directs this screen adaptation of the eponymous Joseph Boyden novel about a young Cree woman Annie who travels from James Bay to Toronto in search of her sister Suzanne who has been missing for over a year.  Suzanne was working as a high-fashion model when she disappeared.  Coming from communities afflicted by violence and abuse, Annie and her uncle Will exemplify the family’s trauma of pain and loss. Annie’s own troubled journey opens her eyes to the dangers of being drawn into a world of addictions and exploitation. B+
Non-Fiction (Doubles Vies, France)
Master filmmaker Olivier Assayas directs this fast-paced talky ensemble piece on the comedies of modern life in the fast lane.  Guillaume Canet and Juliette Binoche are brilliant in the lead roles of a high-powered publisher and his accomplished wife who are cheating on each other.  The witty conversations over food and drinks are a delight.  I loved this movie! A
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada)
The third collaboration among filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and photographer Edward Burtynsky is a visually stunning and intellectually challenging exploration of a burgeoning humanity’s increasing impacts on the planet, leading to a new epoch in geological time.  Awesome images capture the many effects that include destruction of nature, pollution, extinctions, climate change and more.  The film’s release coincided with the opening of exhibitions of Burtynsky’s stunning photographs at the National Gallery and Art Gallery of Ontario.  More information at: https://theanthropocene.org/  (See also the 2015 documentary of the same name: http://www.anthropocenethemovie.com/.  And on the scientific Anthropocene Working Group: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene.) A
Donbass (Germany/Ukraine/France/Netherlands/Romania)
Belarus-born filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa helms a searing portrait of what is happening in “Novorossiya”, the heavily Russian-influenced breakaway eastern part of Ukraine since the Putin regime’s boldly illegal 2014 annexation of Crimea. The occupation has an Orwellian character. It harks back to a Stalinist recreation of the Soviet system.  It libels Ukrainian patriots and the “Euromaidan” revolution as “fascist” (when in fact it is Putin’s game to support the far right across Europe).  It shows the daily horrors being inflicted by this reactionary revanchist civil war.  Loznitsa, awarded best director in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of Cannes for this masterwork, took part in an extended post-screening discussion with a scholar from the Munk School of Global Affairs on Russia’s colonial designs on Ukraine, evidence of  Putin’s cunning ruthlessness in seeking to restore a great-power sphere of influence. A
The River (Kazakhstan/Poland/Norway)
This was part of the juried “Platform” section.  It’s part of a trilogy by writer-director/produce/cinematographer/editor Emir Baigazin.  Five young boys dressed in dun-coloured rags in a desolate dun-coloured landscape are dominated by their father, their one escape being swimming in a nearby river, until the disruptive arrival of a city-dwelling boy. Confessions, beatings, and disappearances follow.  It’s enigmatic and often perplexing slow cinema, rigorously composed, resisting any answers. B
Transit (Germany)
I loved director Christian Petzold’s previous wartime drama Phoenix (2014). He’s back with this absorbing story of a German refugee who escapes to Marseille, assumes the identity of a writer who committed suicide, and seeks asylum in Mexico. That journey transitions into a story of love and exile, playing with time between past and present, and evoking as the TIFF program book puts it: “ghosts, memory, and historical trauma”. B+
The Land of Steady Habits (U.S.)
I probably should have skipped this Connecticut-set melodrama directed by Nicole Holofcener given that it was on Netflix before TIFF ended.  But it has some modest pleasures and witty ironic moments depicting an American consumer society at loose ends.  As Christmastime approaches family tensions play out in an atmosphere of spiritual and cultural drift.  The dramedy benefits from good performances by Ben Mendelsohn as the hapless divorced father, Edie Falco as his steadier remarried ex-wife, and Thomas Mann as their sensible son. B
Maya (France)
In this gripping cross-cultural story from director Mia Hansen-Løve, Gabriel is a war correspondent who has been taken hostage and rescued. Later he learns that a fellow hostage and journalist colleague has been killed. Suffering from post-traumatic effects he travels to Goa, India to see his godfather.  There he meets Maya, the beautiful daughter who has been studying in London.  He is taken with her but unable to leave his old life behind.  After meeting his estranged mother in Mumbai, Gabriel parts ways with Maya and returns to the frontlines, lacking faith but still searching. B+
What is Democracy? (Canada)
This National Film Board production directed by activist filmmaker Astra Taylor asks a lot of important questions though it omits any Canadian content.  One of the main framing devices is a Renaissance painting in Siena depicting class-cultural hierarchies of oligarchic virtue while demonizing the dangers of succumbing to the lower orders.  Another goes back to the ancient Greeks and the warnings against democracy as mob rule degenerating into the tyranny of strongman rule. One can see a contemporary parallel in the proto-fascist potential of reactionary authoritarian forms of “populism” such as Trumpism.  As radical philosopher Cornell West puts it: “Plato’s challenge will never go away.”  There is also Dostoevskyès challenge about how many people really want to be free. Delving into the trials of current democracies, the film explores the challenges to realizing a fundamental equality of citizens under conditions of globalized capitalism, technocracy, racism, sexism, etc.  Questions arise as to who is included in government for and by the ‘demos’.  Who really counts in “we the people”?  What does people power mean in practice?  What about individual and minority rights? Skepticism about the current state of democracies is rife.  What keeps the aspiration to democracy vital is its constant struggle from below to achieve the revolutionary ideals of equal citizens and self-government.  Forthcoming will be a companion book and an associated campaign to counter widespread “political illiteracy”.  More at: https://zeitgeistfilms.com/film/whatisdemocracy and https://www.nfb.ca/film/what-is-democracy-2018/ B+
22 July (Norway/Iceland)
The latest chilling docudrama from director Paul Greengrass, now on Netflix, has provoked some very divided reactions.  The date refers to the infamous day in 2011 when the self-described White nationalist “Knights Templar” defender of Western Christian Civilization Anders Breivik, dressed as a policeman, killed 77 people, mostly Norwegian youth at a summer camp, because they deserved to die as “Marxists, liberals, members of the elite”.  The explosion in Oslo aimed at decapitating the government and subsequent massacre on nearby Utoya island are recreated in shocking detail.  So is the fate of wounded survivors and the traumatic aftershocks including the prosecution of an unrepentant Breivik who revels in notoriety and rejects a defence of insanity.  I would have liked more on Breivik’s terrorist rationale: his lengthy manifesto of Islamophobic, anti-immigration, anti-multiculturalism venom that is too close for comfort to current far-right and neofascist agitation in many European countries, Scandinavia included.  It’s why 22 July could happen again.  Greengrass has alluded to these parallels in interviews, observing how at the time Breivik’s rantings were “considered outré and outrageous.  That’s mainstream now across the populist right. Not that they approve of Breivik’s methods, but the rhetoric, the world view, the words, they’re all the same.” B+ 
Kursk  (Belgium/Luxembourg)
This is another docudrama based on actual events—the August 2000 sinking of a Russian nuclear submarine (spoiler alert: there are no survivors).  It’s directed by Danish “Dogme” auteur Thomas Vinterbeg but it left me cold.  The disaster, fight-for-survival, heroic-tragedy genre is sometimes effective if unoriginal, while lead roles go to non-Russians (Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, even the venerable Max Von Sydow) affecting Russian accents. 22 July is also an English-language production yet manages a more compelling verisimilitude. C
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Romania/CzechRepublic/France/Bulgaria/Germany)
This searing feature by Romanian director Radu Jude (it’s Romania’s Oscar submission) was also part of the TIFF speakers series with the Munk School of Global Affairs. The protagonist is a young female theatre director commissioned to stage a reenactment of a Second World War massacre of tens of thousands of Ukrainian Jews. She is determined to confront a whitewashed history in which Romanians are the victims, of the Nazis then the Soviets, when in fact Romanians were long complicit in a murderous anti-Semitism.  As the authorities try to tone down the pageant with a threat of shutting it down, she faces both personal challenges and a fight against the historical amnesia of populist nationalism. B+
Red Joan (UK)
Dame Judi Dench is terrific in this biopic, directed by renowned theatre director Trevor Nunn, based on the life of Melita Norwood who in the late 1930s, while attending Cambridge University, was drawn into spying for the KGB.  During the Second World War, when the Soviet Union was an ally, she passed on high-value intelligence secrets.  The Norwood character, here named Joan Stanley, is an elderly retired scientist living quietly alone when finally exposed in the year 2000, arrested and charged with espionage to the astonishment of her lawyer son. B+
The Weekend (U.S.)
This slight romantic dramedy, directed by Stella Meghie, follows the relationship entanglements of a group of young Black men and women, single and attached, over a weekend away from it all in shared accommodations. C
Cold War (Poland)
Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida was awarded the 2014 best foreign-language Oscar.  Awarded best director at Cannes, this is another historical masterwork filmed in black-and-white (and a retro squarish 4:3 aspect ratio) that uncovers deep passions against a wrenching postwar backdrop, drawing on the story of Pawlikowski’s own parents. The protagonists are Wiktor, a musical director and pianist and Zula, his singer protégé in a folkloric chorus in Communist Poland.  The lovers are separated when Wiktor defects to the West.  Yet their fates remain entwined up to a final choice—to be forever together “on the other side where the view is better”. A
Donnybrook (U.S.)
This “Platform” selection directed by Tim Sutton is a raw, violent journey into a dark American underbelly of drugs and disorder in which young men with no prospects enter no-holds-barred fight contests—“donnybrooks”—for the chance at a large cash prize to the bruised and bloodied victor. One of these is “Jarhead Earl”, played by Jamie Bell, desperate for money for his family and wife who needs cancer treatments.  (If your image of Bell is as the ballet-loving kid in Billy Elliot, think again.) His nemesis is a meth-dealing psychopath with an abused sister played by Margaret Qualley (another total role reversal from her role as the young nun in Novitiate). There’s a sordid scene of her contemplating suicide that is almost unwatchable.  The visceral desperation and brutality provoked some walkouts. Be prepared for a movie that is as gut-wrenching as the punches thrown. B
Shoplifters (Japan)
Director Hirokazu Kore-eda took the top prize ‘palme d’or’ at Cannes for this superb social-realist drama of life on the margins of a Japanese society that is rarely seen.  Shoplifting is just one of the ways that a multigenerational unconventional “family” gets by.  Their number grows by one, with added complications, when an abused little girl comes under their protection.  As much as an uncaring society looks down on them, sometimes it’s the misfits who most exemplify family values. A
Meeting Gorbachev (UK/U.S./Germany http://www.springfilms.tv/portfolio/meeting-gorbachev/)
Directed by master filmmaker Werner Herzog and André Singer, this insightful portrait of one of history’s great men, now aged 87, draws on a series of interviews that Herzog conducted with Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow.  From a humble peasant background in the north Caucasus, Gorbachev excelled as a student and rose in the ranks of the Communist Party to become the youngest leader in Soviet history, and the one whose reforms (‘glasnost’, ‘perestroika’) would presage the USSR’s dissolution.  While he’s blamed for that in his homeland, becoming an isolated almost tragic figure, the world owes him a huge debt for the Cold War ending without bloodshed.  Among his laments are that “we didn’t finish the job of democracy in Russia.” We sense Gorbachev’s genuine warmth and humanity as well as the reflective wisdom of an elder statesman.  The contrast with Putin’s strutting strongman pose is too apparent to need mentioning. B+ 
Styx (Germany/Austria)
In director Wolfgang Fischer’s tale of solo challenge, Rike is a German emergency physician and first responder suffering from burnout who embarks on a perilous journey, setting sail in a yacht for Ascension island midway between Africa and South America.  More than stormy seas, she will face a life-and-death moral choice.  Even alone on the high seas, there’s no escaping the test of one’s essential humanity. B+
Everybody Knows (France/Spain/ Italy)
This Spanish-language feature represents somewhat of a change of pace for Iranian master Asghar Farhadi, though troubled familial relationships remain at its dramatic centre.  When Laura (Penelope Cruz) returns from Argentina with her daughter and son to her native Spanish village for her sister’s wedding, tensions that lie just under the surface involve a former lover Paco (Javier Bardem).  The daughter’s disappearance during a power outage turns into a suspected kidnapping that brings Laura’s distraught Argentine husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darín) on the scene.  For the daughter’s return, family secrets and suspicions “everybody knows” must come to light.  B+  
American Dharma (U.S.)
Through one-on-one interviews and archival footage, veteran documentarian Errol Morris tries to get at what drives Steve Bannon, the far-right guru who attached himself to the Trump campaign and for a time the Trump presidency.  Bannon invokes the Sanskrit term ‘dharma’ to refer to the forces of duty, destiny and fate.  He sees these in favorite old war movies like Twelve O’Clock High.  Bannon’s checkered background in both the movie business and high finance prior to steering the extreme right media outlet Breitbart certainly makes him a fascinating if malign character.  While the liberal Morris explicitly disavows Bannon’s incendiary politics, one senses Bannon, a master manipulator of narrative, having the upper hand in this encounter.  (For a deeper critique of Bannonism’s baleful influence see the Joshua Green book Devil’s Bargain.) B      
Putin’s Witnesses (Latvia/Switzerland/Czech Republic)
Ukrainian-born director Vitaly Mansky lived in Russia during the momentous events of the demise of the USSR and its aftermath, years during which he had extraordinary access to the inner circles around the erratic Boris Yeltsin and ambitious Vladimir Putin, the former KGB operative and rising star who replaced him on New Year’s Eve 1999. In the production of a television documentary, Mansky was hired to follow Putin as he took over the top job.  Almost two decades later Putin dominates Russia as no one has since Stalin.  Mansky’s film revisits this intimate footage he shot from the early years, shedding light on Putin’s cunning, calculating character and the opportunistic making of an autocrat.  Not surprisingly Mansky has had to leave Russia for Latvia to escape the Putin regime’s repressive control over media. B+
Monrovia, Indiana (U.S.)
Director Frederick Wiseman, now 88, is the acknowledged master of observational “direct cinema”.  Here he turns the candid camera on life in small-town rural Indiana, an area where white Christians predominate that would have voted heavily for Trump in 2016. While Wiseman listens in on some community debates over the direction of local development, there’s no mention of national politics or Trump’s name. There’s a Republican party booth at a local fair but no one is shown wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap. The steady flow suggests an appreciation for the modest virtues to be found in the rhythms of everyday life (church services, weddings, funerals, council meetings). I found it too passive to make any point, or maybe that very middle American steadiness is the point?  There’s more parochial common-sense contentment than Trumpian “American carnage” to be found here. B
Jirga (Australia)
Writer-director Benjamin Gilmour achieves something remarkable in this story of an Australian ex-soldier Mike (Sam Smith) who is haunted by a deadly war crime that he witnessed while deployed to a small village in Afghanistan.  He is driven to undertake a dangerous journey back to the village in an area now controlled by the Taliban, seeking forgiveness and putting his life in the hands of the village ‘jirga’ (council of elders).  Actually shot in Afghanistan (not Jordan, Morocco or New Mexico) with Afghans, including former Taliban members, as the supporting cast, this is bravura filmmaking that respects the Afghan reality. A
First Man (U.S.)
Director Damien Chazelle’s fourth feature is also his most impressive.  It’s based on James R. Hansen’s eponymous 2005 biography of the late Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the moon in July 1969.  Canadian Ryan Gosling is perfect in the role of the sober-minded Armstrong who had to grieve the loss of a young child, and who survived an arduous series of death-defying preparations for that first moon landing to become reality. (Claire Foy is also excellent as Armstrong’s wife Janet, as are all the supporting roles.) We really get the sense of the man, and of how audacious the Apollo program was with the technologies of a half century ago.  Armstrong’s “small step for man … giant leap for mankind” had world-historical significance but he resisted any flag-waving heroic mythmaking.  (Although we get a view of the American flag on the moon’s surface, we don’t see the actual planting of it by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.  That omission has provoked a backlash among some American right-wingers almost as ridiculous as the never-ending conspiracy theories about the landings having been faked.  Indeed there are still flat-earthers who deny all images of the earth from space.) A
            [A half-century ago, the Apollo 8 mission which orbited the moon was the first to capture the distant earth as a fragile “blue marble” in the vastness of space.  Those iconic images created a new global consciousness as observed in the award-winning short film Earthrise (see https://www.earthrisefilm.com/; available on Netflix).  It was JFK in the early 1960s who put America on the path of ambitious space exploration.  That extraordinary effort, its tragedies as well as triumphs, is detailed in an excellent new documentary film by his filmmaker niece Rory Kennedy (Robert Kennedy’s youngest daughter) whose Above and Beyond: NASA and the Search for Tomorrow was first broadcast October 13 on the Discovery channel.  The film also points to the great contribution of NASA’s programs and earth-orbiting satellites to the understanding of earth systems, including the effects of climate change on the planet.] 
Before the Frost (Denmark)
The last feature I saw at TIIF was a bleak drama set in 19th century Denmark, a conflict over land as winter approaches.  Misfortune leads a father to promise his daughter to a wealthy Swedish landowner or risk losing the family’s means of livelihood.  But with another suitor loving the daughter, the desperation and burning jealousies will take a terrible toll.   B+

October: Other TIFF Selections Viewed Post-Festival

A Star is Born (U.S.)
Is a fifth screen remake of this story really necessary?  Tempted as I was to say “no” I was won over by the powerful performances of director-protagonist Bradley Cooper as the husky-voiced country-rock star Jackson Maine on the skids and Stefani Germanotta (aka Lady Gaga) as the discovered talent turned soaring pop diva “Ally”.  Sam Elliot is also excellent as Jackson’s much older and wiser brother who’s unable to arrest his slide into alcoholism and drug addiction. A love story that turns tragic it’s a melodramatic fairy tale of course.  But the singing performances (on real stages), the candid backstage scenes, and private raw emotions are all wondrously believable.  Expect multiple Oscar nominations. A
The Sisters Brothers (U.S./France/Romania/Spain)
Although set in mid-19th century Oregon, this is a strange “western” tale made odder by the fact of being an international coproduction helmed by France’s Jacques Audiard loosely adapting a best-selling novel by Canadian Patrick De Witt (whose new novel is titled French Exit). The brothers are a pair of assassins hired by a tycoon they call the “Commodore”.  Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a psychopathic drunk who killed his father.  Big brother Eli (John C. Reilly) is goofier and pudgier but no less deadly. Headed for San Francisco during the Gold Rush, in their sights is a prospector (Riz Ahmed) with a mysterious caustic formula for finding gold, joined by a detective on his trail (Jake Gyllenhaal). While their luck runs out, the odd-couple brothers get to go home mostly intact. Audiard films many scenes in a darkness matched by the shady characters, with flashes of light that are mostly gunshots as the bodies pile up.   B

October: Three Other TIFF Films and Three More

White Boy Rick (U.S.)
This is multiplex fare that didn’t really merit the fillip of festival exposure.  Nonetheless, based on a true story, it is aggressively directed by European Yann Demange and benefits from good performances.  The “Rick” in question (played by Ritchie Merritt) is the teenage son of shady gun-dealing dad Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) when he is recruited as a drug-busting informant by several FBI agents.  The grim scene is the industrial wasteland of 1980s Detroit in which Rick’s own sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is a junkie. Rick gets used, in over his head, trapped and thrown to the wolves.  In 1987 at age 17 he received an absurdly long 30-year prison sentence for selling cocaine. (The real Rick was paroled in 2017 and the movie ends with a voice recording from him.)  It’s all rather sleazy and another sad lesson of the casualties from the failed “war on drugs”.  B+
Helming this captivating true story is Texas-based David Lowery who previously brought the masterful A Ghost Story to the 2017 Sundance festival.  Sundance founder Robert Redford stars as Forrest Tucker, a compulsive bank robber and jailbreaker who leads a geriatric “Over the Hill Gang” (Tom Waits and Danny Glover play his partners in crime.) on a series of bank jobs. Tucker may have a gun but he is a gentlemanly irrepressible charmer who wins the heart of horse-loving widow Jewel (Sissy Spacek) even while being doggedly pursued by Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck from A Ghost Story).  Elizabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) has a cameo as Tucker’s long-estranged daughter.  Although Redford, now 82, has said this will be his last acting role, he proves once again his consummate skills on screen.  Consider also the case of another octogenarian, 88-year old Clint Eastwood, still going strong with a new feature as actor-director The Mule scheduled for a December release (and also starring Bradley Copper of A Star is Born).  A
Sharkwater Extinction (Canada https://www.sharkwater.com/)
In 2006’s Sharkwater, Canadian filmmaker and ecological activist Rob Stewart drew attention to the mass slaughter of different shark species for their fins.  Although many countries have banned the practice of “finning” a lucrative illicit trade continues with hundreds of millions of sharks being killed.  Material from hunted sharks can also be found in other consumer products.  Stunning underwater cinematography captures Stewart’s interactions with these ancient and wondrously evolved creatures.  He seeks to share his marvel at and appreciation for their role as apex predators that are nothing like the fearsome monsters of popular imagination.  Using some of the footage Stewart had already shot, his team carried on following his tragic death in a January 2017 dive off the Florida keys. The result is a fitting epitaph to his legacy and a warning about the ongoing human-caused threats to the natural world—the more of which we extinguish, the more we diminish our own future.  (Filmmaker and diver Robert Osborne’s documentary on the troubling aspects of Stewart’s death, The Third Dive: The Death of Rob Stewart, can be streamed online in Canada at CBC Docs POV: https://www.cbc.ca/cbcdocspov/episodes/the-third-dive-the-death-of-rob-stewart.) A
[*Note: The screening I attended was preceded by a trailer for Wonders of the Sea 3D, co-directed by Jacques Cousteau’s son Jean-Michel, and narrated by Arnold Schwarzenegger. More information at: http://www.wondersofthesea3d.com/.]
 Lizzie (U.S. https://lizziethefilm.com/)
Craig William Macneill directs this chilling morality tale that premiered at the 2018 Sundance film festival. It’s based on an actual gruesome double murder by hatchet in 1892 Massachusetts.  Chloé Sevigny plays Lizzie, the stifled, epileptic and embittered daughter of a wealthy father and stepmother when an Irish maid Bridget (called “Maggie”) played by Kristen Stewart comes into the household.  Lizzie has a shy spinster sister and a conniving uncle interested in the family fortune.  There are dark undercurrents in the suggestion of the patriarch taking sexual liberties with the maid, and forbidden desires in a lesbian liaison between her and Lizzie who’s threatened with being sent away and denied her inheritance.  Did shared desperation provoke the scandalous killings?  Lizzie was charged but acquitted.  The all-male jury could not believe a lady of high society could be a murderess.  Bridget moved far away and the two women never saw each other again, taking their secrets to the grave.  Sevigny and Stewart excel in their roles as unhappy women driven to flashes of passion, straining against the crushing weight of their respective repressive and dour societal stations. B+
The Happy Prince (UK/Belgium/Italy/Germany https://sonyclassics.com/thehappyprince/)
Also premiering at Sundance, British actor Rupert Everett stars as Oscar Wilde in this historical drama at the end of the 19th century that focuses on the last years of the famous playwright, author and celebrated wit.  They were spent in ignominy and exile after suffering two years imprisonment “at hard labour” for the crime of “gross indecency”.  Wilde had a wife Constance (Emily Watson) and two young sons whom he never saw again.  His weakness was for homosexual liaisons with boys and young men.  His undoing was a notorious affair with “Bosie”, Lord Alfred Douglas (Colin Morgan), the wastrel son of the Marquess of Queensbury. Everett is openly gay but in this late Victorian era it was the illicit love that dare not speak its name.  While sympathetic to Wilde’s plight, the film is an unsparing depiction of those penurious yet dissolute final years in France and Italy under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth. Wilde had a loyal ally in Reggie Turner (Colin Firth) but he also played off his feuding lovers, the fickle Bosie and steady Robbie Ross (Edwin Thomas) whose ashes were later interred with him. Wilde died at age 46 in wretched circumstances in Paris and it was Ross who arranged for a priest Fr. Dunn (Tom Wilkinson) to effect a deathbed conversion.  A small comfort perhaps.  The movie’s title come from a children’s story Wilde recalled reading to his sons.  But this is anything but a happy story.  B+    
The Wife (UK/Sweden/U.S. http://sonyclassics.com/thewife/)
In this melodrama, based on the Meg Wolizer novel and helmed by Swedish director Björn Runge, Glenn Close is masterful in the role of Joan Castleman, the long-suffering “wife” of the title.   She’s been married for four decades to Joe Castelman (Jonathan Pryce) who was her college English professor, now a renowned author, when they get word he is to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Joan was a student of brilliant promise but has sublimated her talent in the service of making his career while also excusing his philandering ways.  The real writing power behind his public literary success, she’s stayed in the background until reaching a breaking point while they are in Stockholm to accept the award. News of the birth of a grandchild provides a brief moment of shared joy.  But accompanying them is their brooding resentful adult son David (Max Irons), an aspiring writer in his own right who knows the truth. Adding to the combustible mix is Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who goes after Joan to pry juicy material for a hack biography of the great man.  She rebuffs him with dignified reserve.  In private she lays it on the line with Joe—“time’s up” for the lionized centre of attention; “time’s up” for the patronizing thanks to the silent helpmate in the shadows. He gets the medal. For overdue honesty she takes the prize. B+

October: Jean Vanier and Sumer in the Forest

On October 26 the National Gallery hosted a very special event—the Ottawa premiere of director Randall Wright’s moving and insightful documentary Summer in the Forest, a UK/France/Palestine co-production that profiles renowned Canadian-born Catholic humanist Jean Vanier (http://www.jean-vanier.org/en) and the work of his “l’Arche” communities for people with disabilities, a movement of acceptance and loving joyful hope that has spread around the world. (More information on the film and availability at: http://www.summerintheforest.com/.)
Introductory remarks by Senator Jim Munson, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities, were followed by a video message from Vanier himself, who turned 90 last month.  For decades he has lived simply in the original l’Arche community at Trosly-Breuil adjoining a forested area in northwestern France. As he expressed his message: “We live in a world where people want to hide behind walls when we need to build bridges of shared vulnerability.”  Summer in the Forest isn’t a nature or adventure story as the title might suggest, but in a sense it speaks to an adventure of the heart, open to the beauty of nature and trusting in the human spirit.
            Highlights of the film were screened interspersed at intervals with an extended conversation on stage between Randall Wright and noted journalist and author Ian Brown who has a disabled son about which he wrote a 2011 bestselling book The Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Search for His Extraordinary Son.  Brown revealed that a geneticist once told him his son was a “genetic mistake of evolution”.  But he wondered if those that society and science have considered as lesser human beings are not in fact “crucial to the ethical evolution” of our humanity.  They are persons with no power or concern for it, no pretentiousness or cunning competitiveness. What makes them appear childlike also gives them a freeing simplicity that seeks not advantage over others but friendship and love through genuine human relationships. They impart an important lesson.  In making time for others we lose the fear of the other that can poison society. In taking time “we become who we are called to be.”
            Summer in the Forest profiles Vanier’s life and legacy. He had an elite background and Catholic education. (His father Major-General Georges Vanier was Canada’s 19th Governor General.) He entered a naval college at 13 and had a post-war naval command. In Paris he earned a doctorate in philosophy.  But the spiritual call he experienced also led him to an awareness of the plight of those with developmental disabilities and the founding of the first “l’Arche” residence in 1964.  From humble beginnings that has expanded into a global network of some 150 communities in 37 countries.  A striking sequence of Summer in the Forest takes place in Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank.  Into a region notorious for violent divisions l’Arche brings a symbol of shared empathy and common fragility. 
            In this Trumpian moment of toxic power politics and polarization it can be hard to find signs of hope. But through the example of l’Arche Vanier insists: “The weak and the foolish have been chosen to confound the wise and the powerful.”  It is still possible to “dream of a world where everyone belongs.”
            There are presently 31 l’Arche communities in Canada, three of which are in the national capital region.  Summer in the Forest was preceded by Rostyk Makushak’s short film “Paranormal” about one of them named “La Source”. There was also a reception featuring wine tastings from a nearby Ottawa Valley vineyard (https://kinvineyards.com/) that emphasizes sustainability. 
Vanier has dedicated his life to laboring in the vineyard for a greater humanity.  He has an infectious laugh and lightness of being.  He radiates warmth. He calls us to our better nature. It was, in all respects, an extraordinary, inspiring and illuminating evening.  
November: Two More Toronto film festival selections reach theatres

Beautiful Boy (U.S. https://www.beautifulboy.movie/)
Timothée Chalamet turned heads and earned an Oscar nomination in last year’s Call Me By Your Name.  With his classical features and mass of wavy curls, the screen loves Chalamet, who excels again, this time in a real-life role, as Nic Sheff, a talented young man in the throes of drug addictions.   Also excellent is Steve Carell as the father, journalist David Sheff, who stands by Nic through a series of rehabs and relapses culminating in a near-fatal overdose.  Nic has younger siblings from his father’s second marriage. He spends some time with his concerned mother Vicki (Amy Ryan) in another city. Nothing seems to work and the increasing strains on all concerned are palpable.  Helmed by Belgian Felix van Groeningen (best known for The Broken Circle Breakdown), the screenplay draws on the revealing memoirs published by both father and son in 2008: David’s Beautiful Boy: A Father’s Journey through His Son’s Addiction and Nic’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines.  The good news is that Nic not only survived but has thrived as a successful scriptwriter. This story of his struggle with addiction is raw and compelling.  B+
Filmmaker/professional mountain climber Jimmy Chin and partner Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi were the directing team behind the 2015 Sundance prize winner Meru about a death-defying Himalayan ascent.  Here their focus is on a solitary and even more extreme pursuit—that of legendary free climber Alex Honnold to conquer Yosemite’s “El Capitan”, the sheerest and highest 3,200 foot granite rockface on the planet, alone and without the aid of ropes or any other devices.  The filmmakers delve into the back story of Honnold’s childhood and climbing obsessions.  He is an odd bird indeed, living alone in his van for many years. But he does have a devoted girlfriend Sanni McCandless and has established a nonprofit foundation that currently promotes solar energy in the developing world. We see a complex, driven young man who is more interesting than the image of the loner misfit.  The film captures all of these human sides, including setbacks from injuries and an abortive attempt begun in pitch darkness. The drama of several years of preparations builds to the astonishing successful free-solo ascent of El Capitan on June 3, 2017 in just under four hours—the dizzying heights and breathtaking angles captured through multiple camera positions from drone shots to intense close-ups by an expert film crew.  The realization that the smallest mistake means recording a death is always on their minds. One of the camera operators has to repeatedly look away before Honnold reaches the summit and expresses “delight” with his accomplishment.  Both as ultimate climb and absorbing character study, Free Solo, winner of TIFF’s documentary People’s Choice Award, never loses its grip.  A+   [I might add that the film also features scenes with a main climbing partner of Honnold’s, Tommy Caldwell, whose own exploits on El Capitan—a seemingly impossible 2015 wintertime ascent with companion Kevin Jorgeson—is the subject of another heart-stopping documentary The Dawn Wall (http://www.dawnwall-film.com/), a 2017 Austrian production that took the documentary spotlight audience award at the 2018 South By Southwest Film Festival.] 

November: Penguins, Widows, Forgiveness
The Penguin Counters (Argentina/Antarctica/U.S. https://www.penguincountersmovie.com/)
Who doesn’t love penguins?  I certainly do, all 17 species.  It’s been 18 years since I had some memorable encounters with these remarkable seabirds at the other end of the earth.  This wonderful documentary helmed by Peter Getzels, Harriet Gordon Getzels and Erik Osterholm, was produced in 2014 but appears to have had a theatrical release only in 2017.  (It’s available on iTunes.  I saw it via the Sundance Now streaming service.)  The film follows the voyage of a research team led by Ron Naveen to document penguin numbers in order to understand what is happening to these populations and their adaptability in the face of climate change.  (Read more about his decades-long Antarctic Site inventory project on the film’s website above.)
            What made the movie extra special for me was that it was on the same Russian ship, the Akademik Ioffe, following a similar route to the one I did in December 2000—from Buenos Aries to the Falkland Islands, to South Georgia, to Deception Island at the tip of the Antarctic peninsula. South Georgia, home to millions of King penguins, is also central to the legendary feats of explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. The abandoned whaling station at Grytviken is where he is buried. Naveen’s crew got there on an expedition that included a granddaughter of Frank Wild, Shackleton’s second-in-command whose ashes were laid to rest there beside Shackleton’s grave.
South Georgia is the most extraordinary place I have ever experienced on this planet. My best prize-winning photo was taken there (the World Wildlife Fund members international grand prize).
            From there to the desolate landscape of Deception island, a still active volcano, where Naveen’s scientific crew transfer to a smaller vessel and begin the counting of the island’s chinstrap penguin colonies, braving difficult terrain and challenging weather conditions. It’s efforts like these to study changes in the natural world that give us a deeper appreciation of the future of life on earth.  A
           
Several more Toronto film festival selections are now in theatres:
British director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) takes on the crime action-thriller genre in this bleak affair.  The setting is the mean streets and corrupt politics of South Side Chicago in which a crooked African American named Jamal Manning who employs a lethal sidekick (played by Daniel Kaluuya of the 2017 hit Get Out) is challenging an established white machine politician Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) the son of irascible patriarch Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall).  But the key figure is not these bad guys but Veronica (Viola Davis), the wife of crime boss Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) and his gang who have stolen a couple $million from Jamal and seemingly been blown up with it.  So Jamal goes after Veronica for the lost loot and she enlists the three other desperate widows Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), and one other, to pull off a heist using Harry’s playbook. These women go from being supposed innocents living off the avails of to becoming badass gun-wielding robbers.
            Except that Veronica isn’t actually a widow, not yet anyway, since her dirty Harry has set up his crew, is secretly consorting with another widow, and is in cahoots with the junior Mulligan. It’s more sleazy than plausible, though there’s some satisfaction that Veronica gets Harry back in the end. 
Time’s up indeed!  But if one is going full action-thriller mode, I confess that, for all its fast and furious excess, I enjoyed more the Tom Cruise global war-on-terror fantasy Mission Impossible – Fallout that had a quartet of strong female roles.  B
Can You Ever Forgive Me?  (U.S. https://www.facebook.com/CanYouEverForgiveMeMovie/)
Melissa McCarthy has made a name for riotous behavior in a string of raunchy dumb comedies.  She admirably extends her range and proves her acting chops in this drama, directed by Marielle Heller, about the real-life travails of Lee Israel, a penurious author of biographies who, forsaken by her agent, turns to forging witty letters under the names of famous authors and personalities. The chatty and catty screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Witty is based on Israel’s memoir; its eponymous title taken from an alleged Dorothy Parker line.
Lee, a depressive dumpy lesbian, lives alone with an aging sick cat. Her sole social contact seems to be a drinking buddy, a gay gadabout Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant hamming it up) who gets in on the act but whom she is unwise to trust.  Eventually duped collectors get wise and the FBI come calling. The jig is up. Lee is charged and convicted but avoids prison time and the scheme makes for a great confessional story. Watching how well McCarthy and Grant play off each other on screen makes it easier to forgive too.  A-

November: A Lucas Hedges Triple Play
Two young actors have emerged recently as among the most promising male talents of their generation.  Both already have Oscar nominations: Timothée Chalamet in 2018 for a lead role in Call Me By Your Name; Lucas Hedges in 2017 for a supporting role in Manchester By the Sea. Chalamet has earned praise for his latest role as a drug-addicted son in Beautiful Boy (see previous blog post on Toronto film festival selections).  Hedges appears in three current films.  The last to be released, Ben is Back, is also in the role of a drug-addicted son, and is helmed by his writer-director father Peter Hedges.  It opens December 7. Here are notes on the other two.  All were TIFF selections.
Australian actor-director Joel Edgerton helms this sobering true-story drama about the consequences of religious so-called “gay conversion” therapy programs.  He has enlisted Aussie A-listers Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman to play the evangelical parents of 18-year old Jared Eamons (Hedges), a religiously observant student wrestling with same-sex attraction. The setting is Bible belt Arkansas in which Marshall Crowe, a Baptist pastor, and wife Nancy sincerely believe they are helping their son by accepting the counsel of church elders to enroll him in such a program.  It’s done with his consent.  Jared wants to be “cured” of his latent homosexuality.  The screenplay by Garrard Conley draws on his eponymous memoir of that experience.
            The program Jared enters is run by Victor Sykes (Edgerton) who exudes evangelical zeal and psychological authority without having any real qualifications. Jared is troubled by dubious confessional exercises such as a “moral inventory”. He becomes increasingly disturbed when, for all the talk about God and “love”, confrontations lead to psychological and even physical abuse.  One even results in a suicide. (As a side note, among the inmates is a sullen character “Jon”, played by openly gay Quebec actor-director Xavier Dolan.) When Jared can no longer play along—“fake it to make it”—he appeals to his mom to take him out.  Fortunately she listens, expressing sympathy and regret.  Jared’s preacher dad takes longer to adjust to having a gay son. What is most assuring is that both parents never stop loving their son.  The movie closes with an honest heart-to-heart father-son talk as affecting as that celebrated in Call Me By Your Name.
            The harm done by “gay conversion” was also the subject of the more sharply political The Miseducation of Cameron Post, centred on a female subject, which received the U.S. dramatic grand jury prize at Sundance in January.  Boy Erased is as good.  Hedges, who got his Oscar nod for playing a macho teen juggling girlfriends, is also well cast here.  Indeed he has been open about his own “fluid” sexuality.  Noting that 36 states permit such “conversion” programs, the movie makes one reflect about the damage from the self-hatred inflicted on hundreds of thousands of vulnerable young people.  The kicker in Boy Erased is an endnote observing that the real Victor Sykes subsequently came out as gay and is living with his husband in Texas.  Perhaps one should not be surprised that religious hypocrisy is also part of this picture. 
A
Lucas Hedges in the role of an older brother drew me to this film, the directorial debut of actor Jonah Hill who also wrote the screenplay. 
            The setting is the Los Angeles skateboard subculture, circa mid-90s, centred on a pint-sized 13-year old kid Stevie (Sunny Suljit) who wants to hang out with a crowd of older skater dudes pretending to be as tough and cool.  It’s a loudmouthed gang of characters, with the show- off casual profanity and stupidity of restless adolescent males. Stevie’s single mom (Katherine Waterston) isn’t impressed.  Older bro Ian (Hedges) is more sullen and abusive than supportive, treating him like a nuisance.  Stevie’s pals may call him “Sunburn”, but the family dynamics are less than sunny to say the least. If this is a nostalgia trip, it’s not a heartwarming one.  Still Suljit gives the character of Stevie a plucky presence that impresses, and Hedges makes the most of an uncongenial supporting role as the unhappy Ian.  B   

November: Bohemian Rhapsody and Coldplay Dreams
This ode to the British rock band and their legendary lead singer Freddie Mercury had a production as troubled as its star subject, with director Bryan Singer being replaced by Dexter Fletcher (who’s at the helm of Rocketman, a forthcoming biopic on Elton John).  Only Singer gets credited however. Many reviews have been less than kind.  Still, what’s best is how Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) throws himself into the role of the mercurial Mercury, actually born Farrokh Bulsara in 1946 in Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania). Of Indian Parsi descent, he was in his late teens before immigrating to the UK with his conservative Zoroastrian parents. With extra teeth and an exotic look, Mercury went from working as a baggage handler to the top of the charts.
The movie glides over that unusual backstory, including an early marriage undone by Mercury’s flamboyant bisexuality. More usual is the slide from meteoric rise into addictions and excess, as well as the tensions leading to the band’s breakup. Where the movie soars is in the creation and performances of Queen’s greatest hits, notably the now-iconic operatic titular track that confounded critics at the time.  This culminates in the band briefly reuniting to perform during the huge 1985 “Live Aid” concert, when Mercury was already suffering from AIDS.  That highpoint also ends the movie which simply notes that he died of complications in 1991.
            Bohemian Rhapsody will be a must-see nostalgia trip for Queen fans. Beyond that, Malek is convincing enough in the audacious lead role to make this compulsive and cautionary tale worth watching. B+
Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams (UK)
This terrific rockumentary covering several decades of another hugely successful British band had only a one-day global theatrical release on November 14 before going to the streaming platform of Amazon Prime.  I braved Ottawa’s traffic congestion hell to catch the last of two shows at a suburban multiplex and am so glad I saw it on the big screen.
            I’ve been a big fan of the Coldplay foursome (only the Irish foursome U2 rank higher in my estimation) since first hearing about them from some 20-something Brits I travelled with across the Australian Outback in the spring of 2001.  They couldn’t get enough of the first album “Parachutes” and its global hit “Yellow”. The four—lead singer Chris Martin, guitarists Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman, drummer Will Champion—came from English boarding school backgrounds and shared tudent camaraderie at University College London.  Among many aspiring musicians the four friends created something special that caught on resulting in a stratospheric ascent.  Despite the inevitable downs, and even outs, their at times rocky evolution has formed an enduring bond among the original four and a key manager, also a friend from student days.
            Directing the film is Mat Whitecross, another friend who has followed them from earliest days, resulting in a trove of remarkable close-up archival footage. They were still nobodies in 1998 when the charismatic Martin, still wearing geeky braces, cheekily predicted a band stealing the name “Coldplay” would be “huge”. Then in a few short years that actually happened.  There’s a lot of revealing behind-the-scenes-material, much of the home video variety in grainy black-and-white, contrasting with the pulsing rainbow colour-bursting spectacle of massive soldout stadium shows around the globe, mainly from their most recent 115-show, 18-month “Head Full of Dreams” world tour, starting and ending in Buenos Aires.
            The film to its credit does not leave out the rough spots of “depression, addiction, divorce”, or the hostile reviews from some critics.  The band has had to cope with frontman Martin’s celebrity status and its pitfalls, notably when his marriage to actress Gwyneth Paltrow and their subsequent split became tabloid fodder. 
This is no hagiography and one gets the sense that the four are still pinching themselves at how far they have come without imploding.  They have forged a genuine collaborative friendship that keeps asking what’s next. There’s a disarming candour throughout that belies the outsized “rock star” image.  These guys can critique and poke fun at themselves.  An element underplayed is the band’s social-justice activism (https://www.looktothestars.org/celebrity/coldplay) which is similar if less famous than that of Bono and U2.  That said, Martin does wear his “global citizen” consciousness-raising literally on his sleeve.           
            The mix of thrilling live performance and intimate backstory reminds me of Phil Joanou’s Rattle and Hum made about U2 some 30 years ago which also took its title from a major album tour by a global supergroup that never sounded better.  It’s a compelling combination that makes Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams one of the best music documentaries of recent years.  A

November: Two More from TIFF—Of Private Wars and Green Books
A Private War (UK/U.S.)
After helming two masterful documentaries (2015’s Oscar-nominated Cartel Land and 2017’s Emmy-nominated City of Ghosts), director Matthew Heineman approaches this dramatic retelling of the life and death of intrepid American war correspondent Marie Colvin with a similarly compelling passion that serves its subject well. Rosamund Pike is extraordinary in the role of Colvin who wrote dispatches for the London Sunday Times from the world’s worst conflict zones—Sri Lanka (in 2001 where she lost an eye), Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya (the last Western journalist to interview Gaddafi), Syria.  She became known for wearing a black eye patch (and a fashionista La Perla bra).  The film doesn’t gloss over the demons of PTSD and a stormy personal life in which she chain smoked and drank to excess. But it connects most strongly when she is face to face with the victims of war’s evils, determined to tell the truth of these human stories. As she tells her boss: “I see it so you don’t have to.”
            The movie’s timeline leads towards Colvin’s final fatal moments in the besieged shattered Syrian city of Homs.  On these dangerous assignments she was accompanied by ace photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan is a much more worthy role than as the hunk in the worthless “Fifty Shades” franchise).  Colvin was driven to take great risks to get the story.  We hear the powerful interview she gave to CNN on February 22, 2012 before being killed in a bomb blast as rebel-held Homs was being relentlessly pounded by the Assad dictatorship. Her witness gave the lie to claims that only “terrorists” were being targeted.    Observing that over a half million Syrians have been killed since her death, this film is a timely tribute to fearless frontline journalism telling truth to power.
Director Peter Farrelly, of the Farrelly Brothers associated with lowbrow comedies, is solo at the helm here tackling a more serious subject—America’s racial and class divides—through an unusual true story of the mixed-race Don Shirley trio touring the deep South in 1962.  Dr. Don, a classically-trained pianist living in solitary splendor above Carnegie Hall, needs a driver with muscle to be his chauffeur on the tour.  He also happens to be a tall elegant multilingual Black man of refined tastes who would prefer playing Chopin to jazz. (The other two members of the trio, white, Russian-speakers, travel in a separate car.)  The driver he ends up hiring, Frank Vallelonga, who goes by “Tony Lip”, is a blunt Italian-American family man of unrefined tastes, a bouncer at the Copacabana nightclub who needs the good money of this 2-month gig while that joint is closed for renovations. So begins a very odd-couple roadtrip that evolves from fractious to unlikely friendship. (The title comes from a “Green Book” guide for Negro motorists advising where “coloreds” can stay and be served.)
            What’s best about the movie, which won the Toronto film festival’s “People’s Choice Award”, regarded as an Oscar harbinger, are the terrific performances of Mahershala Ali (Oscar winner for Moonlight) as Dr. Don and Viggo Mortensen as Tony.  Don is subjected to racist indignities the deeper south they go, even from wealthy hosts. Several times Tony comes to his rescue from threats and abuse. But Tony has a point when in a moment of exasperation he claims to be “blacker”. Because he’s the one opening doors for the boss and taking orders; in New York he’s the lower-class proletarian, the doctor the high-class aristocrat.
            Tony has grown up with causal racial attitudes but he’s fundamentally a good-hearted guy. And the movie comes to a heartwarming conclusion on a snowy Christmas eve that leaves a crowd-pleasing effect.  Still over half a century later one has to wonder—about class inequalities that are greater and the racist attitudes in Trumpland that, albeit less overt and more insidious, are far from being overcome.

November: Netflix Highlights—Babylon Berlin, Outlaw King
Babylon Berlin
Netflix has some truly amazing content.  Let me highly recommend this German dramatic series set in 1929 that is the most expensive non-English language series ever made. There is a great deal more information about it available online through the official website https://www.babylon-berlin.com/en/overview-babylon/ and here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babylon_Berlin. Despite a very busy volunteer schedule I’ve managed to view all 16 episodes of the first two seasons. The third is currently in production.
            Two central characters are Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch), a police detective transferred from Cologne assigned to a vice squad, and Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries), a hostess in a nightclub and stereotypist who goes to work for him.  Gereon is a First World War veteran who needs drugs to calm his nerves.  Charlotte’s home is a squalid family flat.  There are many more characters in the richly-conceived intersecting storylines, one of which centres on a train from Soviet Russia carrying illicit poison gas and a supposed secret fortune in gold.  The political atmosphere—the doomed Weimar republic before the Great Depression and triumph of National Socialism—is fraught and feverish: one of decadence and despair, extremes and extortion, Communist and Trotskyite intrigue, violence in the streets, rearmament and fascist plots, and much more.  Not only are the performances outstanding across the board, the production team (helmed by master filmmaker Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries, and Henk Handloegten) have created an entire world that brings this intense febrile historical epoch to life as never before on the modern screen.
            The result truly deserves that overused term awesome.  The historical complexity also puts it above my previous best-ever television series, the Danish “Borgen” which has a contemporary political setting.  I can’t wait for the next episode.
Outlaw King (UK/U.S.)
The Toronto International Film Festival has a history of dubious choices for its opening night gala presentations, getting scooped by Venice and Telluride for Oscar-worthy fare.  In some ways this made-for-Netflix production, a “big bloody mud-and-honour epic” as one fairly positive review calls it, is no exception.  The setting is 14th century Scotland and the subject is Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) who takes up the Scottish crown in the wake of the martyrdom of the rebel William Wallace (see Mel Gibson’s Braveheart), rallying the clans to repulse the evil royal English overlords … which of course they do after terrible reprisals.
            No expense has been spared on the production, helmed by Scottish director David Mackenzie and shot on Scottish locations. Pine is fine as the warrior king and there are a few tender even racy scenes with his wife, a goddaughter of the English monarch Edward I who expires en route to the ultimate battle showdown. The focus however is on the action of swords and savagery, guts and gore.  Worth watching, but only if you have the stomach for that sort of thing.   

December: In Praise of the Danish Screen—Walk With Me and The Guilty
The Canadian Film Institute’s 33rd European Union Film Festival wrapped today presenting excellent features from 27 of 28 member countries. (See all titles and descriptions at: https://www.cfi-icf.ca/euff.  The UK has not participated since the 2016 Brexit vote.)
I was able to see 20, and in addition had already seen Cold War (Poland) and Transit (Germany), both by master filmmakers, at the Toronto film festival (see previous post).
            The one I was most struck by was the Danish entry Walk with Me (not to be confused with the eponymous 2017 documentary about a Zen Buddhist community). Tiny Denmark punches way above its weight when it comes to both the big and the small screen.  Borgen (Danish for “government”) sounds dull but is the best ever made-for-television contemporary (2010-2013) political drama series. There is an abundance of film talent beyond the works of internationally acclaimed directors such as Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and Susanne Bier.
 Walk With Me (Denmark/Sweden/France 2016)
Directed by Lisa Ohlin, the film begins in the poppy fields of Helmand province Afghanistan when Thomas (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a 25-year old gung-ho Danish soldier on patrol, steps on a landmine that destroys his legs. Surviving as a double amputee he tries to maintain a macho military pose, egging on an army buddy to return to the battlefield.  But as reality sets in, and his girlfriend deserts him, he faces another personal battlefield, beyond overcoming the agonizing physical challenge of learning to walk on prosthetic legs.  While in hospital he is introduced to Sofie (Cecilie Lassen), a principal dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, who is there for an aunt dying of cancer. The gradual bond that forms between them becomes central to his recovery and the emotional saving grace that prevents him from becoming a suicide statistic.  Thomas has to come to terms with many hard truths, including that a young Afghan boy he thought he had befriended may have placed the mine. Sofie’s touch helps him adjust to a completely new life.  This is a convincingly realistic post-traumatic story told with immense feeling and sensitivity—without any melodramatic musical score and not a trace of sentimentality. A
Director Gustav Möller’s debut feature premiered at the 2018 Sundance film festival where it won the world cinema audience award, most deservingly.  The film ratchets up the suspense of a homicide thriller and kidnapping in progress even though the camera stays in one room focused, often in extreme close-up, on one character, Copenhagen police officer Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren), assigned to phone duty in an emergency services call centre as a result of his involvement in the fatal shooting of a young man. The night before a key court hearing he takes a call from a frightened woman named Iben.  From her quavering dissembling voice inside a vehicle it appears she has been abducted by a vengeful ex-partner Michael, leaving a terrified young daughter at the home with a baby brother.  Asger tries to keep her on the line to identify the vehicle to dispatch a police unit, and also speaks with the daughter to try to calm her and send police to the home.  He also gets hold of his police partner Rashid, who must testify at the next day’s hearing, and has him break into Michael’s residence for clues about the vehicle’s destination. As the tension rises, there’s a heart-stopping moment that flips everything on its head and will lead to a desperate confession to prevent a suicide.  Throughout the only face we see is Asger’s; the others are only voices on a phone line.  Yet this is as intense a psychological crime thriller as any I have seen.  A  
(*Worth noting is another Sundance award winner, Searching, also a disturbing and surprising psychological police thriller, told entirely through computer screens.)
          
December: Painting Eternity
On December 4, the Canadian Film Institute of which I am a longtime ambassador member presented a very special event—the screening of a fully restored version of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 205-minute masterwork Andrei Rublev, first seen in Moscow in December 1966 but suppressed by the Soviet authorities.  It was not shown internationally until 1969 (at the Cannes film festival), and not in North America until October 1973.  [Interestingly 1966 is also when Sergey Bondarchuk’s epic monumental 427-minute War and Peace was first released in the Soviet Union. Among my greatest films of all time it’s reviewed in my book The Best of Screenings & Meanings at pp. 29-30 and 168-169.]
            The setting for Andrei Rublev is the early 15th century Russian empire.  The titular central figure is a monk and renowned icon painter.  Beyond the monastery many of the scenes take place in and around the ancient city of Vladimir (200 kms east of Moscow), which had been the medieval capital.  Its Cathedral of the Assumption (Dormition) is where the grand princes were crowned.  Beyond striking black-and-white cinematography, the film is notable for its deeply religious imagery and allusions. (As master painter Theophanes the Greek says to Rublev: “If Jesus returned to earth, they would crucify him again.” That calls to mind Dostoevky’s famous parable of The Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov.) There is much else: ribaldry, nudity in a pagan ceremony, rain-soaked mire, treacherous rivalries, extreme violence including torture and a massacre in the cathedral when the Tatars sack Vladimir. (This Mongol invasion actually occurred in 1238.) Scenes of that, and subsequently of the casting of an immense bell, are staged on an awesome scale in which Orthodox Christendom faces a constant struggle between good and evil.  It seems almost impossible that a movie so steeped in reverential religion was made in the officially atheist Cold War USSR.
            There’s actually very little painting shown in Andrei Rublev, until near the end when the screen resolves into a glorious montage, in colour, of rich iconography that has survived the ravages and vicissitudes of history. The icon painters were clearly aiming for the eternal, however compromised and ephemeral the imperial masters that employed them.  (Read more: https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/43-andrei-rublev-an-icon-emerges.)
 At Eternity’s Gate (Switzerland/UK/France/U.S. https://www.ateternitysgate-film.com/)
The life and work of the late 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh continues to fascinate.
Last year’s Loving Vincent was an unusual exploration creating a story around him told entirely through oil-painted frames using his signature swirling brush technique.  This film, helmed by Julian Schnabel, a filmmaker who is also a painter, is a more conventional biopic of Van Gogh’s troubled later years. Van Gogh was a disturbed personality and social outcast. He famously cut off an ear and was committed several times to asylums. Unable to sell his paintings he survived through support from his brother Theo.  (Now considered masterworks worth hundreds of millions of dollars, those not in museums could only be afforded by billionaires.)
            Willem Dafoe throws himself into the role of the tormented Van Gogh (awarded best actor at the Venice film festival) although, in his mid-60s, he is old for the part of a man who died at age 37 in 1890. (Following a period of intense productivity in Auvers-sur-Oise, the untimely cause of death, from a gunshot wound to the stomach, remains controversial—was it self-inflicted?)  The film spends considerable time on Van Gogh’s relationship with Paul Gaugin (Oscar Isaac), a more successful post-impressionist artistic rebel. Van Gogh was driven, and almost driven mad, by a compulsive eccentric artistic vision of nature and beauty.  In an asylum he confesses to a skeptical yet sympathetic priest (played by Mads Mikkelsen): “Maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.”  (That has proved to be prescient indeed.)  In the conversation Van Gogh also speaks about Jesus.  Viewers may recall Dafoe’s remarkable title role in Scorsese’s controversial The Last Temptation of Christ.
            For all of Dafoe’s admirable effort, including imitating brush strokes on famous canvasses, At Eternity’s Gate isn’t a masterwork.  The language mix is odd with smatterings of French but most of the dialogue in English (including a few voiceovers by Van Gogh with a blank screen), The musical score is intrusive at times.  Key relationships (notably with Gaugin, Theo) and encounters are more sketched than deeply explored.  Still the enduring Van Gogh mystique is enough to make this an interesting work.  B

 December: Political Sex Scandals Then vs. Now
The Front Runner
The biggest irony of the “Me too/time’s up” climate of zero tolerance for alleged sexual misdeeds is the seeming impunity of the serial offender in the White House.  Donald Trump’s ardent followers, including evangelical Christians, seem to excuse with alacrity his bragging about sexually assaulting women (“you can do anything”) and illegally paying off porn stars.
Mind you, in the 1990s Bill Clinton survived an impeachment process over his sexual sins.
            Canadian filmmaker Jason Reitman takes us back to the 1980s with a cautionary tale about the rise and precipitous fall of Colorado Democratic Senator Gary Hart who in 1988 was the prohibitive favorite for his party’s presidential nomination. Hugh Jackman gives a convincing portrayal of the well-spoken progressive telegenic Hart who, although then separated from his wife Lee (played by Vera Farmiga), seemed to have everything going for him.  Hart’s campaign, led by the hard-nosed operative Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons), was going great guns until a news story—obtained through rather shady surreptitious means—set off a media frenzy.  Hart tried in vain to project forward his policy ideals while protecting his private life.  It didn’t work. Just the suggestion of a possible consensual extramarital affair was enough to torpedo his campaign and destroy his political career.  The Democratic candidate ended up being the ill-fated Michael Dukakis. The election was won by the late George H.W. Bush so recently eulogized.  It’s worth reflecting how differently the 1990s might have turned out.
            By the way, Gary Hart was born in Ottawa—Ottawa, Kansas that is.  More to the point, Hart and his wife are still married after all these years.  In 2018 they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary.  B+
December: New on Netflix for the Holiday Season
I keep being impressed by the quantity and often quality of the content made available for online
streaming on Netflix.  HBO is just now showing its first non-English language production—the excellent Italian series My Brilliant Friend.  But Netflix, now in over 180 countries, is way ahead in terms of top-notch international productions.  In a previous post I praised the German series Babylon Berlin set in 1929.  I’m also hooked by the new Polish series 1983 set during the last years of the Communist Cold War era (8 episodes so far, fraught with danger, intrigue, murder, sex, and treachery in a hothouse of repression versus revolutionary agitation).
            On the documentary side, an absolute must view are the 8 episodes of Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II: A Natural History of the Oceans. One runs out of superlatives to describe the diverse range of of astonishing underwater images illustrating an amazing compendium of often little-known information. Attenborough narrates another epic achievement that is awesome, enthralling and utterly absorbing.  A+
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
From the acclaimed writer-director duo of the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, comes this offbeat Western that plays out as a series of tall tales.  In the first one, about the titular Buster Scruggs, Tim Blake Nelson hams it up as a goofy devil-may-care gunslinger, until he meets his match. Subsequent Western stories, always told on the wry side, cycle though a host of fine actors evidently enjoying appearing in a Coen brothers production.  Although the movie does lose some steam towards the latter half, it’s a consistently entertaining affair.  Indeed the Coens took the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival and the National Board of Review named Ballad one of its top 10 films of 2018. B+
Mowgli-Legend of the Jungle
Director Andy Serkis is best known for his motion-capture performances—as “Gollum” in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as “Caesar”, the simian leader in the recent Planet of the Apes movies (2011-2017).  Given the Disney Jungle Book films (most recently in 2016), one wonders about another remake, even if Serkis does go back to the original source material of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 All the Mowgli Stories collection.
            Mowgli is the “man cub” rescued as an infant by a black panther Bagheera (voiced by Christian Bale) after his parents have been devoured by the terrorizing tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), a threatening presence throughout.  The feral Indian boy Mowgli (played by 11-year old Rohan Chand) is raised by a wolf pack he seeks to join.  Another protector is a bear named Baloo (voiced by Serkis).  Mowgli’s adventures take a fateful turn when he gets taken in to a human village that includes a tiger hunter (Matthew Rhys), leading up to a showdown that also involves elephants and a python among other talking jungle creatures.  This isn’t a great movie but it does feature quality animation combined with live action.  A caution about some quite violent scenes which may be disturbing for young children. B

Netflix’s Mexican Masterwork is the Movie of the Year
If you don’t have Netflix it would be worth getting it just to watch this Mexican masterwork as it will have only a very limited theatrical release.  Roma, which won the Venice film festival’s top prize, is the year’s best reviewed film with reason.  I’ve added below one among many laudatory reviews.
            Let me add a few notes to that.  The story, set in the “Roma” residential neighborhood of Mexico City 1970-71, obviously draws on director Cuarón’s personal memories.  It combines strikingly evocative images, a cinematic poetry, with remarkable realism, so much so that at times you could swear you were watching a black-and-white documentary from that period.  The class structure is apparent: the lower orders with Indigenous blood (a majority of Mexicans are ‘mestizo’- mixed race) serve well-to-do households like the one depicted in the film—a professional couple with five children (four boys and a girl) and a grandmother living with them.   Cuarón chooses to make the central character the nanny and housemaid Cleo.
            What happens to Cleo drives a narrative on several levels.  One is her personal life troubles when a man into martial arts makes her pregnant then abandons her.  He is last seen in an astonishing sequence in which Cleo, accompanied by the grandmother, goes into labour in a department store while a massacre by paramilitaries takes place outside.  On another level, Cleo is not the only woman to feel abandonment and heartache.  The husband of the household leaves early on just before Christmas.  The pretense is maintained that he is doing research in Canada (Quebec) until during a brief beach holiday in Tuxpan the mother breaks it to the children that their father is “not in Ottawa” and not coming back. The storylines converge in that Cleo and the family seem to draw strength from each other, forming a bond that endures. Indeed ‘Roma’ spelled backwards is ‘amor’—Spanish for ‘love’—a memory worth holding on to.
            This lovingly lensed masterpiece is the best movie of 2018. A+

December: Clint, Jack, Marwen, and Ben
As the holiday movie season begins, for good entertainment value and family viewing I can recommend several animated features still in theatres: Ralph Breaks the Internet and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.  The latter is such a hyper-kinetic kaleidoscope of computerized sound-and-light special effects it carries a sensitivity warning. What appeals is the story that reimagines the cartoon legend with a Latino teenage boy as hero. More adult awards-contending pictures will open Christmas Day, about which more in a next post. Below reviews of four other very different recent releases.
The Mule  (U.S. http://www.themulefilm.net/)
I’ve long been a fan of Clint Eastwood and at 88 he still has the chops both in the director’s chair and on the screen.  This is one of those truth is stranger than fiction stories based on a New York Times magazine profile of a 90-year old who worked for the Sinaloa cartel transporting their cocaine across state lines.  (The screenplay adaption is by Nick Schenk, whose true story of drug addiction was the basis for the fall release Beautiful Boy, reviewed earlier.)
            Eastwood plays the titular drug ‘mule’ Earl Stone. A champion horticulturalist of day lilies from Peoria, Illinois, he’s also a crusty incorrigible character who’s a terrible husband and father estranged from family. Faced with foreclosure he falls into an easy money scheme that involves driving from El Paso to the Chicago area with a load of barely concealed drugs, no questions asked.  Having never been stopped by police or given a ticket, who would now suspect an elderly gent on the road? Bradley Cooper plays a drug enforcement agent trying to trap the cartel’s top mule (this clean-cut appearance in sharp contrast to his role playing the alcoholic musician in A Star is Born.)
            Earl’s softer side—taking a forbidden detour to be at his dying ex-wife’s bedside, spreading the wealth around—brings down the curtain on his drug-running exploits but earns our sympathy.  There’s a semi-autobiographical element to that.  Eastwood like Earl is a Korean war veteran and has cast his daughter Alison in a supporting role.  Like octogenarian Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun, these criminals as charming old coots still have a seductive appeal. B+ 
The House that Jack Built  (Denmark/France’Germany/Sweden)
Danish provocateur Lars von Trier doubles down on notoriety with this film that sparked many walkouts at Cannes where he was famously banned a few years ago for comments about “understanding Hitler”.  It’s the only film I’ve ever seen to have both a 100% and 0% rating on metacritic.com.  I stuck it out even though my take is closer to the 0%.
            Jack, played by Matt Dillon, is a psychopathic serial killer, aspiring architect, obsessive-compulsive clean freak, and narcissist who styles himself “Mr. Sophistication”.  The viewer is subjected to the recall of a series of gruesome “incidents”, culminating in a failed attempt at multiple homicide involving male victims rather than the usual solitary females.  Particularly revolting are scenes in which a mother and two young sons are targeted and one with a female breast.  Don’t ask. Somehow von Trier convinced the great German actor Bruno Ganz to play a character “Verge” who is only heard as an offscreen voice until the last act that leads from a chamber of horrors to a vision of hell. (This suggests a reference to the character of Virgil in Dante’s Inferno. Ganz memorably played an angel who falls to earth in my favorite film of all time Wings of Desire. Fallen indeed. Another of Ganz’s notable roles was as Hitler in Downfall.)
This ghastly affair is definitely demonic, as well as a misogynistic and nihilistic parody of human depravity notwithstanding its pretense to philosophical and artistic desiderata which include periodic black-and white clips of Canadian virtuoso Glenn Gould at the piano. Classy, eh? Jack may not be the year’s worst movie but it is the vilest.  F  
Welcome to Marwen  (U.S. https://www.welcometomarwen.com/)
In 2010 Jeff Malmberg made a superb documentary Marwencol about a middle-aged man Mark Hogancamp living alone in upstate New York who had suffered physical and emotional damage from a vicious beating that was a hate crime. A heavy drinker who loved the ladies (“dames”), he appeared “queer” due to a fetish for collecting and wearing women’s shoes (the higher the heels the better).  Hogancamp had been an illustrator.  His recovery therapy turned obsession was to create in his yard a miniature world—a fictitious World War II Belgian village called “Marwencol” in which an alter ego G.I. Joe character Cpt. Hogie does battle with the Nazi enemy, aided by female warriors but opposed by a female nemesis.  Hogancamp made these fantasy figures out of costumed dolls and then photographed them in action poses.
            Writer-director Robert Zemeckis’ gaudier dramatized version stars Steve Carell as the oddball survivor Hogancamp and uses motion-capture techniques to animate the doll figures in scenarios conjured by his troubled mind.  The town originally called ‘Marwen’ is an amalgam from imagined lovers Mark and Wendy. When a sympathetic young woman Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves next door Hogancamp is smitten to the point of proposing marriage, adding ‘col’ to the name of his beloved village. Fortunately she lets him down gently, and he recovers from that blow to display his photographs at art shows. Unfortunately this “enhanced” version lacks subtlety (Nicol’s nasty bothersome ex-boyfriend becomes a “Nazi” doll figure; one of Hogancamp’s assailants sports a swastika tattoo) Moreover, the often violent special-effects sequences tend to overwhelm the actual story of Hogancamp’s ingenious relief from traumatic injury.  C+  
I’ve already praised Lucas Hedges for his performances in Mid90s and Boy Erased. He is at his best here as the 19-year old Ben in a role he had to be convinced to take with his father Peter Hedges as writer-director. The drama is condensed to one day from the afternoon of Christmas eve through Christmas morning. It opens in a church with Ben’s mom Holly (Julia Roberts) and his siblings preparing for that night’s service.  Ben has a younger sister from her first marriage, and a much younger half-sister and half-brother from her current mixed-race marriage. Returning to the family home they unexpectedly find older brother Ben there, absent from a rehab program for his opioid addiction.  Holly and husband Neal (Courtney B. Vance) are skeptical but Holly grants him a day with them under the strictest conditions of tough love and constant supervision. 
            That seems to work for a while.  Holly takes Ben shopping and to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. He’s with the family for the Christmas eve religious service.  But when they arrive back to a break-in and the family dog missing, things go awry. Ben wasn’t just a user, he was a dealer with criminal connections.  Holly insists on going with Ben to get the dog back.
When he absconds with her car she has to borrow one form the mother of a young woman he got hooked on drugs who died of an overdose (as tens of thousands of Americans do every year.) Holly grows increasingly desperate through a long, not holy, night.  Her refusal to give up on her son is the only thing that can save him.
            There are many more details but I’ll leave it at that.  Both Hedges and Roberts give Oscar-worthy performances in one of the better family dramas ever made about the perils of drug addiction.  Christmas holiday movie settings are often sappy and sentimental.  This realistic story’s spirit, so totally opposite, is actually a blessing.   A

December: Christmastime Releases
These opened across Canada on Christmas Day.

The Favourite (Ireland/UK/U.S. http://www.foxsearchlight.com/thefavourite/)
 Several of Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous films have left me cold, indeed repelled (Dogtooth, The Killing of a Sacred Deer).  But in this case, an uproarious ribald costume drama set during the early 1700s reign of Britain’s Queen Anne, his twisted sense of black humour results in sheer delight.  The dotty, gout-afflicted Anne (Olivia Colman) is being controlled by a viperish right-hand woman Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) determined to raise land taxes to prosecute a war with the French.  That is until a servant woman Abigail (Emma Stone) comes on the scene, relieves Anne’s condition and schemes her way into Anne’s favours, affections, and bed.  Abigail gets her way in cahoots with the leader of a flamboyantly bewigged and attired parliamentary faction of landowning gentleman. From a vicious rivalry for Anne’s attentions, only one “lady” can emerge on top as the “favourite”.
            Anne as addled monarch is a rather pathetic figure, yet also oddly sympathetic.  Claiming to have lost 17 children she surrounds herself with 17 rabbits. Colman is superb in the role, as are Weisz and Stone as the jealous contenders to be the power behind the throne.  It’s a sumptuously entertaining affair and one of the year’s best movies.  A
I loved writer-director Adam McKay’s previous film, 2015’s The Big Short which satirized the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis and had high hopes for this take down of former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney.  However McKay’s tongue-in-cheek approach to Cheney’s remarkable rise misfires as much as hits the target, notwithstanding Christian Bale’s equally remarkable portrayal of the man.  (Bale has become famous for such shape-shifting physical transformations.)
            We first see Cheney as the underachieving young man, a n’er-do-well dropout from Yale, who gets an ultimatum to shape up or ship out from wife Lynne (Amy Adams). Cheney’s break is to become a Congressional intern to future defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell), from there catapulting to become President Ford’s chief of staff following Nixon’s downfall.  Cheney will prosper again during the Reagan years, then even more so when he becomes chief executive of the Haliburton corporate empire.  McKay even inserts an early fake ending to the Cheney success story.  That’s before 2000 when Cheney is wooed by Bush family “black sheep” George W. (Sam Rockwell) and only agrees to become his running mate on the “unified executive theory” understanding that he will operate in effect as an all-powerful and unaccountable co-president.  The terrorist tragedy of 9/11 further empowers Cheney’s ambitious self-serving designs (highlights including the invasion of Iraq, “enhanced interrogation” torture of suspects, and omnipresent surveillance by the national security state).  Along the way McKay has fun with Cheney’s multiple heart attacks as well as recounting the bizarre incident when he accidentally shot a hunting companion.
            McKay never uses the critical phrases most associated with Cheney—as being the “prince of darkness” who mused about the need to “work the dark side”. But it’s clear he sees Cheney as a ruthless operator who has exerted a nefarious influence on American democracy and ethical norms; the one exception being his acceptance of a lesbian daughter and concern to protect her. For most of the story McKay uses an unidentified narrator (Jesse Plemons) who ends up being a heart donor.  Then at the end he has an unrepentant Cheney address the camera, and during the closing credits inserts a mock riff on the film’s evident “liberal bias”.  The problem is that too much of this plays as parody rather than incisive exploration of vice-presidential vices.  Adams is excellent as Cheney’s equally ambitious wife Lynne.  But Carell as a cynical Rumsfeld and Rockwell as a pliable George W. turn in amusing caricatures rather than insightful character studies. Somehow Cheney outsmarts everyone else and the joke is on the American people.
            Vice has received an enthusiastic rave from veteran critic Todd McCarthy in The Hollywood Reporter but most reviews have been much less kind (a middling 65% rating on rottentomatoes.com). Bale deserves an Oscar acting nomination.  The movie unfortunately does not.  B-  








 

     

     






     




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