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Early August Movies Update

“It was the summer of ‘69”, goes the hit Bryan Adams song. Indeed.  The epic moon landing.  Woodstock.  But also Nixon, Vietnam, the Manson murders.  Adams was then 9; I was 17 and already determined to be a nonconformist.  The moon shot may have been driven by Cold War competition, but Apollo 11 was still an astounding feat for the time.  I’m not sure I even knew what a computer was … the idea of a global internet was science-fiction futurist fantasy. With the comparatively primitive technology of a half century ago, how did they do it?  Getting there, and back.
            Growing up on a working farm, the idea of idyllic summers at the cottage was also fantasy. I’ve never known cottage life.  So I am grateful for the recent welcome blessing of spending the last half of July at friends’ cottages—first, Bob’s capacious beachfront place at Southampton on Lake Huron; then Jim and Carol’s loghouse-style two-story abode at Nahma Shores on Lake Michigan’s upper peninsula.
            It was at Bob’s on Saturday July 20, the exact 50th anniversary of that first walk on the moon, that I started reading Oliver Morton’s brilliant book The Moon: A History for the Future. He writes that “nothing became Neil Armstrong more than the modest and private life he returned to, leaving only that which he had done for the public.” A new documentary titled simply Armstrong ( has been released, but I’m still waiting for it to reach Canadian theatres.
Catching up on the cinema scene, here are my takes on eight current movies that include two documentaries, and two last performances—the late Luke Perry in “Once Upon a Time …”, and Tom Waits in “The Dead Don’t Die”. RIP, the show must go on.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
The 9th film from pop-culture director Quentin Tarantino actually begins in the Los Angeles of February 1969 before shifting to a fateful August, but isn’t it always summer in sunny California?  The central duo are a fading star Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio), late of the series “Bounty Law”, and his stunt double-driver-fixer with a violent past, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Rick nurses his boozy moods on a fancy estate in the Hollywood hills next to that of Roman Polanski and blonde bimbo wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Cliff relaxes in a trailer with his dog. While Rick is enticed to make a spaghetti western in Spain, acquiring an Italian wife, Cliff makes the acquaintance of a creepy hippie commune hanging out at the derelict Spahn ranch, a former movie set. There are great cameos by Al Pacino as a sleazy promoter to get Rick’s career out of the dumps, and Bruce Dern as an aging addled ranch owner roused by Cliff who has given a ride to commune member “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley).  Cult leader “Charlie” Manson actually appears on screen for only the few seconds that are in the trailer—which has some of the best parts of this sprawling 161-minute affair.
             There’s much more as Tarantino, consummate movie geek, piles on the period details and tropes leading up to a cartoonishly violent alternate-reality ending (not to forget the closing credits during which Rick is reduced to shilling for a cigarette brand). In the combustible mix of decadence and desire, can depravity be far behind?  Tarantino basked in a standing ovation at Cannes 25 years after his Pulp Fiction won the Palme d’Or.  I haven’t been a fan since his first feature (Reservoir Dogs), but for all its indulgences, this fable is a blast. A- 
Despite mediocre to poor reviews, this vaunted “photorealistic” Disney remake of its 1994 animated feature has already hauled in over $1billion at the box-office. Director Jon Favreau uses something called “virtual production” for the life-like effects.  The main elements of the storyline and accompanying musical numbers (“circle of life”, “can you feel the love tonight”) are familiar. The lordly Musafa rules over the talking animals in the Pride Lands, served by the chatty hornbill Zazu, while evil mangy uncle Scar plots with ravenous hyenas to take over the kingdom. Incautious cub and heir Simba gets blamed for Musafa’s death and banished, to the despair of girl cub Nala, crossing a desert and growing up with comic sidekicks, the warthog Pumbaa and lemur Timon. Of course in this circle of return Simba prevails to take his rightful place atop Pride Rock. Unfortunately the anthropomorphic animal talk ranges from trite to cornball, crossing landscapes unlike the African savannah, even if the critters look “real”. C   
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love
I’m glad I arrived back in Ottawa in time to catch the last showing at my neighborhood repertory ByTowne Cinema, the near sellout a testament to the enduring following of celebrated poet-songwriter-singer Leonard Cohen. Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield’s feature, which premiered at Sundance, is an affectionate, though not uncritical, look back at the troubled relationship between Cohen and Norwegian Marianne Ihlen that began in the 1960s on the Greek island of Hydra, then a bohemian enclave, when she was exiting an unhappy marriage.  Broomfield has an intimate connection to the story as a longtime friend (and briefly lover) of Marianne who may have been among Cohen’s muses but could never tie down the legendary artist—the moody writer who surprised himself in becoming a singing sensation and went through more phases than the moon. They met in the era of drugs and “free love” that was often an emotional bad trip, especially for the children (including Marianne’s son Axel).  Yet there was a touch of grace at the end.  Interviews with contemporaries enrich the trove of archival footage.  As the songs go, as much as there’s to “laugh and cry about it all again”, hallelujah for this sensitive and insightful remembrance.  A-   
The Farewell (U.S. 2019
Another Sundance premiere, writer-director Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical multi-generational Chinese-language family drama centres on Billi (Awkwafina), a struggling Chinese-American young woman living in New York who learns that her beloved grandmother “Nai Nai” (Shuzhen Zhao) has terminal cancer.  However the rest of the family maintains the tradition that this condition should be concealed from the matriarch. And Billi plays along for the sake of family peace … her travel to Changchun, China to join family members with Nai Nai put down to a relative’s wedding celebration. The central performances are terrific as Billi contends with the complications of sometimes strained family dynamics, while Nai Nai remains irrepressible through it all. The story may be “based on an actual lie” but it leaves you with a plausibly life-affirming lift. A-
This documentary by Alex Holmes celebrates an inspiring voyage of three decades ago when an all-female crew surprised many naysayers by successfully completing the grueling sailing challenge departing from Southampton, England, then known as the “Whitbred Round the World Race”.  There was lots of drama even before their boat “Maiden” left port.  But skipper Tracy Edwards, who had been an unruly problem child, proved to be indomitable and up to the challenge. The underrated “girls” even won the dangerous southern ocean section.  Edwards was awarded yachtsman of the year.  Holmes combines footage from the perils of the journey and the commotion it generated with reflections by Edwards and other crew members looking back on what they proved to the skeptics. This may not rank with the world-shaking events of 1989, but it’s compelling stuff.  B+
Vita and Virginia (UK/Ireland 2018
Director Chanya Button’s period drama centres on the famed “sapphic” relationship between the writers Virginia Woolf (Elizabeth Debicki) and Vita Sackville-West (Gemma Atherton), drawing on their letters and the eponymous stage play by Eileen Atkins.  Vita had already had a notorious lesbian affair when she pursued the elusive high-strung Virginia, much to the disapproval of high-society matriarch Lady Sackville (Isabella Rossellini) who also objected to the unconventional morals and politics of the Bloomsbury set. Button underscores Virginia’s volatile mental state with several magic realist touches.  The scandalous carryings on amid the luxuries of great houses (the settings are as haute bourgeois as they are bohemian) seems to have been comparatively indulged by the respective husbands—Vita’s bisexual Harold, a diplomat, and Virginia’s stoic Leonard, a publisher—who play minor roles on the sidelines of this stormy passion story in which Vita became the inspiration for Woolf’s novel of gender fluidity Orlando: A Biography.   An absorbing look before that could speak its name. B+
The Dead Don’t Die (U.S./Sweden 2019
Writer-director Jim Jarmusch has a flair for the offbeat that’s an acquired taste, including this strange Cannes competition feature that plays its title as a running favorite theme song by country singer Sturgill Simpson.  In Centreville USA, “a real nice place”, a pair of deadpan cops (Bill Murray and Adam Driver), with a third played by Chloë Sevigny, witness a rise of the undead due to “polar fracking” knocking the earth off its axis.  Amid a cast of characters, Jarmusch has fun inserting a Trumpian effect into this zombie twilight zone under a glowering moon.  Cranky farmer (Steve Buscemi) wears a red “Make America White Again” hat while accusing a wildman hermit living in the bush (Tom Waits) of stealing his chickens. Then the metaphorical chickens come home to roost. Along with “kill the head” advice to deal with flesh-eating ghouls, Jarmusch throws in the weirder element of a Scottish samourai sword-wielding mortician (Tilda Swinton) and an alien spaceship.  Even a script in-joke can’t put off the dire fate of messing with the earth’s balance. Time’s up middle America, you’ve been warned. B  
The brilliant comic Kumail Nanjiani (HBO’s Silicon Valley, The Big Sick) is the only reason I stooped to see this, and stuck it out.  That and curiosity about what Canadian filmmaker Michael Dowse (best known for vulgar violence-as-comedy, e.g., Fubar, Goon) would do with the material.  Unfortunately it’s the latter that prevails. After an ultra-violent L.A. opening of cops versus drug-dealing gangsters, in which policeman Vic (Dave Bautista, a tattooed gorilla) loses his female partner, we meet the hapless“Stu” (Nanjiani), a part-time Uber driver of a leased electric car.  Teased as “Stuber” by a dumb boss, he’s in unconsummated love with friend and prospective business partner Becca (Betty Gilpin). This is a sideshow to the main action as the movie careens from one violently improbably episode to another with Vic as Stuber’s passenger on an avenging mission to take down the bad guys. That’s complicated by Vic having trouble seeing due to laser eye surgery, and worse, his badass blonde female boss (Mira Sorvino) being a “mole” and drug queenpin. Of course the good prevails with Vic’s sculptor daughter Nicole (Natalie Morales) coming to the rescue, which leads to Yuletide romance. Yuck.  D


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