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Christmastime movies post


The biggest release by far is of course the latest, and supposedly final, Star Wars “Episode IX”, closing out the third trilogy 42 years after the first began. Generations have grown up with it.  But below are six other titles worth a look, including a Canadian one opening early in the new year.
Richard Jewell (U.S. 2019)
Like the energizer bunny of filmmakers, Clint Eastwood at 89 just keeps going.  In his usual straight ahead no-frills fashion he directs this true-story procedural of the unfortunate case of the title character Richard Jewell (a perfectly cast Paul Walter Hauser) who was falsely accused of the July 1996 Atlanta Olympics park bombing that resulted in two deaths and scores of injuries.  The pudgy hapless Jewell lived with his doting mom Bobi (Kathy Bates) and was easily typecast as a loser with unfulfilled ambitions of a career in law enforcement.  He’d been fired for being an over-zealous campus security guard before getting a security position at the Olympic park.  On the fateful night a call was made warning of a bomb going off in 30 minutes.  After Jewell reported finding an unattended backpack as a suspicious package, it proved to be a pipe bomb loaded with nails.  Hailed as a vigilant “hero”, even offered a book deal, an overwhelmed Jewell contacted the only lawyer he knew Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell).  But then the FBI got involved led by hardnosed agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) who was convinced Jewell fit the profile of an attention-seeker who had planted the bomb, or conspired to do so.   What happens next has been criticized as adding fictional invention in suggesting that Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), a conniving ambitious reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, used sexual favours to extract from Shaw that Jewell was the FBI’s prime suspect.  Splashed across the front pages this news quickly became a media sensation.  (Imagine it “going viral” today!) Jewell instantly went from hero to misfit terrorist, relentlessly hounded and vilified, spied upon and subjected to gross invasions of privacy.  He was fortunate to reach out to the assertive Bryant who went to bat for him as the target of an abusive investigation.  Jewell’s FBI nemesis Shaw comes across as unrepentant even though no evidence was ever found to lay charges. 
            References early in the movie to a “quid pro quo” or to a person with power “becoming a monster” are surely coincidental in this Trumpian era, no?  In any event, both the FBI and the media horde come off very badly. Eastwood’s portrayal never leaves any doubt about sympathizing with Jewell as the unfairly targeted and vindicated wronged innocent. You might say that the deep state and the fake-news media owed him an abject apology. B  
Adam Driver is having a moment if not a season.  The subject of recent admiring profiles in The New Yorker and The Washington Post, he’s in Noah Baumbach’s much-praised Marriage Story now streaming on Netflix (see my review of November 15), and also plays the lead investigator in The Report, a worthy dramatization of the U.S. Senate’s major inquiry into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation” (effectively torture) on suspects during the post-9/11 “war on terror” (available on Amazon Prime Video).  Driver dominates the opening scenes of this ultimate episode as the treacherous Kylo Ren, heir to Darth Vader and nemesis of the plucky heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) who leads the galactic resistance to the designs of the evil Empire and, after a spectacular light-sabre duel with Ren, will have a climactic showdown with the creepy shrouded Emperor Palpatine.  J.J. Abrams, who helmed 2015’s The Force Awakens, is back in the director’s chair for this screen-filling extravaganza of special effects and explosive hyper-action. Along with the weird worlds and weirder creatures, the most resonant parts feature familiar characters as well as the instantly recognizable theme music.  Abrams found enough old footage of the late Carrie Fischer for Princess Leia to make some posthumous appearances.  There are even fleeting apparitions from Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.  And where would we be without old faves like Chewbacca and those droids, especially the chatty C-3PO (voiced by Brit Anthony Daniels who has a memoir out titled I Am C-3PO).  Newcomer Richard E. Grant gets a couple scenes as a General Pryde of the villainous imperial First Order up against leading resistance fighters (Oscar Isaac and John Boyega from the previous episodes).
This is mega-budget spectacle (it’s not aiming to be great cinema), and on that score it’s probably enough to satisfy the franchise’s huge fan base.  Although no one exactly says “may the Force be with you”, there’s also a comforting reassurance of the outcome in the universal battle between good and evil.  Will Rey Skywalker overcome and save the day?  Is the Pope Catholic?  B       
Antigone (Canada 2019 https://www.tiff.net/events/antigone)
Awarded best Canadian feature at the 2019 Toronto film festival, and one of the more recognizable titles on TIFF’s annual “top ten” list, this contemporary adaption that alludes to the classical Greek tragedy by Sophocles, was also Canada’s submission to the Oscar best international film competition (though it did not make the shortlist of 10).   Writer-director-cinematographer Sophie Deraspe makes good use of a mostly youthful ensemble cast. In the lead is a bravura performance by Nahéema Ricci in the title role.  She belongs to the Hipponome family, comprised of a grandmother and four siblings.  They had arrived years earlier in Montreal as asylum seekers from an unnamed Arabic-speaking country (Algeria is mentioned in the credits) after the parents were killed.  However none have obtained citizenship, which becomes a key point. The grandmother Ménécée (Rachida Oussaada) also speaks no French or English. In this story of immigrant experience the family members are given French versions of classical Greek-sounding names. The main character Antigone is a bright high-school student. Although Antigone has an older sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria) who works and wants “a normal life”, Antigone’s troubles arise from her closeness to her brothers Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) and the younger Polynice (Rawad-El-Zein), both of whom have ties to a drug-dealing gang.  A confrontation with police results in Étéocle being fatally shot and Polynice imprisoned following a conviction for assault. When it transpires that Polynice’s criminal record could lead to his deportation, Antigone goes into action.  She cuts her hair, applies gang tattoos and uses a prison-visit ruse to free him by taking his place.   Of course this soon puts Antigone in the crosshairs of an unsympathetic justice system.  Even the grandmother is briefly arrested for complicity.  Rallying to Antigone’s side are a boyfriend, the tall lanky Haemon (Antoine DesRochers), who argues with his concerned politician father Christian (Paul Doucet), and a growing chorus of youthful supporters. Indeed her cause célèbre of brotherly love for Polynice becomes a social-media sensation which the film depicts through rapidfire multi-media sequences that carry a hip-hop/flashmob vibe.
            The narrative clearly suggests a social structure that fails the Hipponomes, and Antigone in particular. But it doesn’t always hold together either.  There is no investigation or follow up to the police shooting of Étéocle. He just disappears except as a plot-point accusation.  And after the somewhat implausible prison ruse springing Polynice, he also disappears until a brief courtroom appearance that provokes emotional outbursts, and then again in the parting shot that suggests a lost Canadian future.  The movie may not be wholly convincing but it benefits from an inventive approach brimming with passion and talented performances.  B+      
Bombshell (U.S./Canada 2019 https://bombshell.movie/)
Jay Roach helms this uneven dramatization of the sexual harassment scandals that ultimately brought down the loathsome Roger Ailes (a heavily made-up jowly John Lithgow), the CEO of Fox News, owned by the Rupert Murdoch dynasty and the favoured channel of the Republican right, notably including Donald J. Trump.  A key moment is during the 2015 Republican primary debates when Fox news anchor and moderator Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) calls out candidate Trump’s problem with women. Trump later responds with a typically crude Twitter outburst against her that fans a vicious backlash.  Then another high-profile Fox female personality Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) gets dumped from hosting “Fox and Friends”.  She gets mad over the toxic environment of sexual impropriety and takes legal action.  The movie also introduces a third fictionalized composite character, Kayla (Margot Robbie), a younger attractive blonde, ambitious “evangelical millennial” and conservative true believer, who gets the leering Ailes treatment.   (Ailes died in 2017, the same year that another major Fox figure Bill O’Reilly was fired for similar reasons.  The movie’s endnote observes that Fox paid out more in severance to Ailes and O’Reilly than it did to settle the sexual harassment cases.)  Predating the allegations against Harvey Weinstein that sparked the “MeToo” movement, it’s a sordid story of male privilege, and of women pushed too far deciding to take a stand against abuse at the hands of powerful men.  B
Little Women (U.S. 2019)
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s sparkling adaptation of the much-loved 1868 classic by Louisa May Alcott is deservedly one of this year’s best-reviewed films and brings a fresh spirit to the material even though this is the eighth screen version of the domestic affairs of the March family of Concord, Massachusetts in the shadow of the Civil War—events based on Alcott’s own family situation.  At first the father is absent from the household of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and four sisters coming of age—eldest Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saorise Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlan).  The most compelling is the vivacious aspiring writer Jo superbly played by Ronan (the star of Gerwig’s Lady Bird).  Prospective publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) advises her that girls in stories should end up “married or dead”.   Another elder who dispenses advice is the rich spinster Aunt March (Meryl Streep).  Jo will regret turning down a proposal from the tall handsome young man of delicate features in the neighboring grand house, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (the willowy tousle-haired Timothée Chalamet, also the love interest in Lady Bird), heir to his grandfather’s fortune.  Through Jo’s perspective are illuminated what befalls the siblings (when a jealous Amy burns the manuscript of her novel, an accident and rescue while skating, the tragic fate of the sweet piano-laying Beth). It’s Jo who insists that women have “minds and souls, not just hearts”, but must rebound from her own heartache when Laurie (whom she affectionately calls “Teddy”) marries Amy.  Romantic possibility is left to her relationship with the teacher whom she met in New York, Friedrich Bhaer (in this version not middle-aged and German but an attractive young suitor played by French actor Louis Garrel).    Gerwig weaves all these elements together with consummate artistry and impeccable period production design.   A-
The directing team of brothers Josh and Benny Safdie specialize in urban narratives that combine gritty street-smart realism with a fast-paced gonzo style.  As a profile in the December 16 issue of The New Yorker observes: “The Safdies aim less to edify audiences than to envelop them: they want to create immersive experiences …”. In this seamy-side story set in the diamond district of New York the central character is a nervy jewel dealer Howard Ratner (played with jittery hyper-intensity by Adam Sandler) who’s also a philanderer and a compulsive gambler in trouble with the Jewish mafia.  Ratner comes into possession of a rare gemstone, a magnificent opal (supposedly mined in Ethiopia in an opening sequence).  That leads to a professional basketball angle through a deal involving the championship ring of an NBA star (Kevin Garnett playing himself).  The whole crazy transaction goes awry with nasty consequences, not least for Ratner who becomes ensnared by his own chaotic lifestyle.  It’s a wild ride driven by Sandler’s impressive performance in a seedy unlikeable role.  (The movie starts streaming on Netflix January 31.)  B+
The Aeronauts (UK/U.S. 2019 https://www.theaeronauts.movie/)
Now streaming on Amazon Prime Video is this story, helmed by Tom Harper, that’s set in the London of the 1860s and centres on the ballooning exploits of an obsessed scientist James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne) who seeks to advance knowledge of the weather and the skies above, and his partner the widow Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones). Although she blames herself for the loss of her husband Pierre in a ballooning mishap, she is persuaded to join Glaisher’s new venture that faces skepticism from the ranks of the all-male Royal Society but stirs public curiosity.  What starts off with the flamboyance of a circus act quickly risks disaster.  After barely surviving a storm-tossed ascent, the balloon soon soars into uncharted, frosty, and oxygen-deprived higher altitudes.  It’s Amelia who must to come to the rescue when a battered James passes out.  The record-breaking flight keeps the terrifying moments coming as the descent to terra firma proves equally perilous. Some striking visual affects accompany the pair’s daring determination, which is enough to earn our appreciation and to keep hoping these plucky aeronautical pioneers will avoid a tragic end.  B
       

   


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