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Mid-June Movie Picks

Let me begin by noting an outstanding HBO documentary now showing that premiered to acclaim at the Cannes festival. (More at: Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, Ice on Fire delves deeply and clearly into the science of climate, the carbon cycle, emissions of other greenhouse gases notably methane, and the effects on the biosphere of human activity. As compelling as it is insightful, there’s also positive information on energy alternatives and mitigation efforts (e.g. carbon capture and sequestration).

Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese  (U.S. 2019)
Veteran master filmmaker Martin Scorsese has a major Netflix drama The Irishman scheduled for release late this year.  He also has a legacy of making great popular music documentaries.  1978’s The Last Waltz is widely regarded (including by me, see pp. 38-39 of my book The Best of Screenings & Meanings: as the best concert film ever.  It focused on “The Band” which backed up Bob Dylan in the 1960s.  Scorsese’s 2005 film No Direction Home: Bob Dylan concentrated on Dylan’s early period 1961-66.  So who better to chronicle Dylan’s messy mid-1970s travelling musical revue that took place during an American moment in the wake of the debacles of Watergate and Vietnam and on the cusp of Jimmy Carter’s bicentennial promise.
            Now streaming on Netflix, this production has brief current interview segments with a laconic Dylan, now 78, and filmmaker Martin von Haselberg (husband of Bette Midler, given the fake name Stefan Van Dorp, among other fictionalized elements) who recorded much of the 1975-76 “Rolling Thunder Revue” as it careened across North America (see details at:  Although a financial disaster given the mostly small venues, archival footage captures a chaotic carnival atmosphere that lured an exotic ensemble from poet Allen Ginsberg to folksingers Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and many others. At the centre always is Dylan, appearing weirdly in whiteface makeup, yet showing flashes of mesmerizing poet-troubadour genius. Among many highlights over the two hours 22 minutes are his ballad advocating for the release of the unjustly convicted “Hurricane” Carter.
Added Scorsese signature touches include brief clips from classic movies. The film ends with the dates and places of Dylan’s thousands of concerts through to the present. A must for Dylan fans, and revealing for anyone interested in this febrile period in American culture.  A 
Actor-director Kenneth Branagh has adapted Shakespeare for the screen to terrific effect (most notably his four-hour Hamlet in 1996).  This, written by Ben Elton, isn’t one of them despite its meticulous Elizabethan England trappings.  It imagines the last years of the Bard’s life in rural retreat from the stage and writing plays following the 1613 fire that consumed the Globe theatre during an ill-fated performance of his last play Henry VIII – aka “All is True”.  Branagh himself, prosthetically enhanced and almost unrecognizable, plays the great man brooding over the death of young son Hamnet while occupied with gardening and family squabbles. Dame Judy Dench plays his older illiterate sour-faced wife Anne Hathaway and Kathryn Wilder is the younger daughter Judith (and Hamnet’s surviving twin), given to shrewish complaint until she gets a man.  Older daughter Susanna is unhappily married to a priggish Puritan.  A visit by an aging nobleman the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, a master of Shakespeare on the stage) provides the only real spark of delight and dramatic relief in an otherwise rather dull and downcast affair. B-
Today June 18 is the 204th anniversary of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, and veteran writer-director Mike Leigh’s historical drama begins on that blasted field as a young English solider and bugler staggers away. This bedraggled Joseph (David Moorst, looking ever forlorn and squinty-eyed) returns to the grimy working class quarters of Manchester where poverty and unemployment await.  It’s the dawn of the industrial revolution with the “laboring classes” slaving away beside clattering looms in Engels’ “dark satanic mills” while the wealthy and their comprador magistrates crack down on the “rabble” with the law and parliament in their pocket.  This is the lengthy (two-hour) setup to the 1819 “Peterloo” massacre when the cavalry charged a crowd of 100,000 men, women and children gathered at St. Peter’s field to demand reforms (such as universal male suffrage then thought dangerously radical).  Before the hapless Joseph becomes one of the martyrs, the throng is addressed by the orator Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear) whose pleas for nonviolence fail to prevent a bloody tragedy once the doddering home secretary is convinced there is a possibility of popular “insurrection” (invoking the spectre of the French revolution) that must be met with force. 
            Great attention has been paid to production design which pays off in some stirring moments. There’s also much speechifying (including harangues from hotheads and invocations by Christian socialists) at reform gatherings, contrasted with the tone-deaf ruling classes conspiring against any threat to their privileges and power.  While this adds extended context, after a while it tends to drag and become stilted.  Several journalists are shown observing the main event, the aftermath of which would have been interesting to explore (requiring at least another movie if not a mini-series).  The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw’s five-star rave is the exception. I admire the socially conscious effort but find myself siding with the middling majority of critics.  B
Late Night (U.S. 2019
This movie belongs to Mindy Kaling who wrote the screenplay and stars as Molly, whose boss Katherine Newbury, a female late-night talk show host,  is played by the excellent Emma Thompson—a role written specifically for her.  Kaling, with a background in comedy writing, is also a proud Asian woman of colour who stands out in rooms traditionally dominated by white men.  Newbury is the notoriously bitchy queen bee of a show running for 28 years despite a decade-long ratings slump. Then a female network boss wants her replaced by a male airhead comic hotshot.  Katherine’s earlier imperious firing of a writer has created an opening filled by the unlikely choice of Molly, an employee at a chemical plant with no television experience who nonetheless brings enthusiasm and ideas to the job.  This becomes the setup for some workplace and showtime twists. A not very credible side angle has the writers’ room hottie Charlie (Brit High Dancy) seeming to hit on Molly but actually having a secret affair with Katherine that gets outed on social media to the obvious distresses of her husband Walter (John Lithgow), a distinguished academic suffering from a mild form of Parkinson’s.  Charlie exits the picture while Molly’s candour briefly gets her fired until Katherine, now in confessional mode, becomes a supplicant for her talents.  The network boss relents too.  All is forgiven, and the show must go on.  Hooray for diversity and facing up to it.  You don’t have to buy that happy resolution to enjoy the humorous elements that make Mindy’s Molly such a game changer both in the back room and in what happens on the set.  B+
The Third Wife (Vietnam 2018)
Writer-director Ash Mayfair’s directorial debut got a rave review in Variety and has picked up a few awards.  However, notwithstanding its support from the Spike Lee Foundation, this is “slow” cinema with limited arthouse appeal (underlined by the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio and languorous pace).  Set in 19th century Vietnam, in a stifling highly stratified and patriarchal Buddhist culture, the titular character is May (Nguyen Phuong Tra), a teenage virgin married to the household’s main man in charge (there’s also his elderly father and troubled son in minor roles).  In this society women’s only value is to serve men, and baby girls are not welcomed.  So it’s not much of a spoiler that May’s giving birth to a girl leads to a suggestion of infanticide.  The screen lingers over luminous images evocative of a time long past—one to which no one would want to return, even knowing the horrors to be visited on that country in the last century.  B


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