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September Movies

A major computer crash has set this back but here are notes on some new documentaries and dramas.  Coming next my grading of screenings from the Toronto film festival.
Honeyland (Macedonia 2019
This amazing piece of cinema verité directed by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov received three awards at Sundance including the grand jury prize for world cinema documentary. The central figure is a middle-aged woman Hatidze Muratova who carries on traditional beekeeping practices while caring for her ailing elderly mother. She sells her natural honey in the Macedonia capital of Skopje. But that way of life is threatened by the encroachment of a nomadic family who also bring a large herd of cattle.   As Hatidze struggles to maintain the natural balance the observant camera offers an astonishing witness to these encounters and to her determination to carry on.  A
Cold Case Hammarskjöld (Denmark/Norway.Sweden/Belgium 2019 )
Denmark’s Mads Brügger is an arrestingly inventive documentarian who, Michael Moore style, inserts himself into his films, but often adopting another persona.  Among other awards he received a Sundance directing award for this fascinating look into the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of Swedish UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld.  I saw this on September 18, 58 years to the day since he was killed in a plane crash near Ndola in northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) on September 18, 1961. In narrating his findings to several African women transcribers, Brügger finds evidence that the crash was no accident and that great powers wanted to be rid of the inconvenient Hammarskjöld.  He also uncovers links to a shadowy South African entity the South African Institute for Maritime Research (SAIMR) and a white supremacist plot to spread AIDS in Africa. Brügger’s dogged digging unearths even more questions than it answers.   A
Aquarela (UK/Germany/Denmark/US 2018
Russian documentarian Victor Kossokovsky’s panoramas of ice, ocean, and other watery scenes offer some wondrous cinematography aided by high frame-rate lensing. We begin on a Siberian lake where vehicles are pulled from crashing through ice roads melting weeks earlier than previous norms.  Off Greenland’s coast is the thunderous crack of massive icebergs calving and images of the shapes of the bergs’ enormous mass below the surface. Sailing vessels drift by, whereas on the high seas they are buffeted by enormous waves.  There are scenes of waterfalls, of flooded landscapes, and what appears to be an underwater rescue. As powerful as are these pictures, sometimes accompanied by a pounding or haunting score, without any narration or identification of any locations there’s also no narrative linking them. With our blue planet buffeted by accelerating climate changes that seems a missed opportunity. B
Ad Astra (China/Brazil/US 2019
The Venice film festival secured the premiere of this absorbing space epic (the title is Latin for “to the stars”) directed by James Gray, an idiosyncratic filmmaker who is the subject of a lengthy recent profile in the New Yorker. At its centre is the testing of a son-father relationship. In an imagined future of “hope and conflict” humans have colonized the moon (importing violent conflicts to it) and are exploring the farther reaches of the solar system.  Brad Pitt plays the seemingly unflappable astronaut Maj. Roy McBride whose vital signs and emotional state are continuously monitored.  His father H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) was a famous astronaut who many years earlier headed the “Lima project” to search for intelligent life and was presumed lost in the vicinity of Neptune.  In the opening scenes we see Roy knocked from SpaceCom’s International Space Antennae as earth is battered by lethal cosmic power surges that may be linked to the project.  Roy’s mission, via the moon and a launch from an underground base on Mars, is to seek and eliminate the threat. Some deadly lunar and space encounters later Roy goes rogue and comes face to face with his father.  As fantastical as this scenario may appear, the human story gives it a compelling gravity.  A-    
Prominent actors, and a gala spot at the Toronto film festival, cannot save this adaptation of the voluminous Pulitzer prize-winning eponymous bestselling novel directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn).   The mother of a young boy Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) is killed in a terrorist bombing of a New York art museum.  But Theo as shocked survivor leaves the scene with the painting of a goldfinch by a 17th century Dutch master.  He comes into the care of the wealthy family of Mrs. Babour (Nicole Kidman) and later becomes the ward of an antiques dealer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright).  When Theo’s dissolute father Larry, an alcoholic gambler, (Luke Wilson) and a gal pal show up, Theo is taken off to live in Las Vegas where he’s introduced to the drug scene by a delinquent Ukrainian teen Boris (Finn Wolfhard).  The painting, thought lost, will get caught up in subsequent drug dealings. Back in New York as a young man (now played blankly by Ansel Elgort) Theo reconnects with Boris and increasingly agonizes over the events involved.   But after two and a half hours of melodramatic convolutions we may not care. C+
The Ground Beneath My Feet (Austria 2019
In Austrian writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s gripping drama, Lola (Valerie Pachner) is a fast-paced business consultant who has the burden of being legal guardian to her older sister Conny (Pia Herzegger) who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has been hospitalized after a suicide attempt.  Lola, part of a team that helps companies to “restructure” (usually meaning downsizing workers), is also in a lesbian relationship with her high-powered and driven boss Elise (Mavie Hörbiger).  The respective strains take a mental and emotional toll as Lola struggles to maintain a balance.  B+


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