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First New Year Movies Post

First, a few comments on the 77th “Golden Globes”.  Netflix had no less than three of the five nominees in the major category of best dramatic feature—The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes.  Yet these collectively scored only one minor win—Laura Dern in a supporting category for Marriage Story.  (I still expect all three to be in the running for the Oscar best picture nominations to be announced January 13.)  The biggest surprise was the big-screen epic 1917 taking the top award of best drama as well as best director for Sam Mendes, giving it an undeniable boost ahead of a January 10 North American wide release.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood took three Globes including for best musical or comedy.  When it comes to movie awards, the streaming services have yet to catch up to these made-for-theatrical-release features.  Series are another matter as streaming increasingly dominates.  I was glad to see Olivia Colman win for her superb portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II in the third season of Netflix’s “The Crown”.  No surprise that the South Korean Parasite won for best foreign-language film and is likely a lock for Oscar. It had already been named best picture by the U.S. National Society of Film Critics.  
The Song of Names (Canada/Hungary 2019
Quebec director François Girard is best known for features centred on music themes—1993’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, 1998’s The Red Violin, and 2014’s Boychoir, Here he adapts the eponymous 2002 novel by Norman Leprecht about a boy violin prodigy Dovidl Rapoport, a Polish Jew saved from the Holocaust, who suddenly disappears just before a major debut concert he’s expected to give in London in 1951.  The backstory takes us to Warsaw on the eve of WWII when the boy genius Dovidl (Luke Doyle) impresses a London music publisher who brings him to live with his family, including a young son Martin (Misha Handley) of about the same age who initially resents the attention given the newcomer.  Indeed  Dovidl is precocious and a competitive showoff, notably in an underground scene of dueling violins during the London Blitz opposite a slightly older Polish virtuoso who is also a refugee.   Still, over time Dovidl forms a close bond with Martin.  Before the concert debut, the ambitious Dovidl aged 21 (now played by Jonah Hauer-King) has both renounced Judaism and become involved with a young woman. Then in a few critical hours a very different encounter proves fateful.  For Dovidl, who has lost his family in Treblinka, there is a reckoning to be made with that tragic past, with the “Kaddish”, the mourner’s prayer for the dead, and with the connection to their memory that impels him to return to Poland.  The title refers to the ritual recitation of the names of the dead in song.  The story jumps ahead several decades to the mid-1980s when Martin (now played by Tim Roth), a music examiner, notices a movement of applying rosin to the violin bow that reminds him of Dovidl.  The gesture prompts him to undertake a search for the long disappeared companion of his youth.  Following the clues takes him to Poland and eventually to New York City where he finds Dovidl (a heavily-bearded Clive Owen) living as an observant orthodox Jew.  Martin’s discovery is prelude to a stirring finale in which the remaining debts to the past are repaid.   Although the fictional narrative stretches credulity, the period details are convincing, the performances heartfelt, and the violin pieces (actually performed by Ray Chen) sublime. B+
And the Birds Rained Down (Il pleuvait des oiseaux, Canada 2019)
Writer-director Louise Archambault’s sensitive adaptation of the eponymous Jocelyn Saulnier novel benefits from wonderful performances by veteran actors.  The remote boreal forest setting beside a pristine lake in Quebec’s Abitibi region suits its few elderly hermit inhabitants who don’t want to be found. The film opens with three wrinkly old men enjoying a skinny dip.  The passing of one Ted (Kenneth Welsh), a painter, brings back to the region an octogenarian female relative who later names herself Marie-Desneige (the late Andrée Lachapelle).  She’s driven by Steve (Éric Robidoux) who manages the nearly deserted “Lebanese” Hotel Ruisseau. He brings supplies to the hermits==the others are the alcoholic singer Tom (Rémy Girard) and cancer survivor Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte) with their faithful dogs—while enjoying the fruits of their marijuana patch.  “Marie”, confined to a psychiatric facility since youth, refuses to return there and so joins the group.  The other visitor is a photographer Ange-Aimée (Eve Landry) who is doing a museum project on the survivors of great fires that had swept the area years earlier. Indeed the film’s title comes from a recollection of that conflagration in which birds fell from a scorching sky. Searching for a Ted Boychuk, Ange-Aimée comes upon Steve’s hotel that leads to the hermits and a stash of Ted’s evocative paintings. She finds an epiphany in these woods that have become a sanctuary of sorts, a space where Tom and Charlie are determined to live on their own terms and where Marie finds a love long denied. Poignant without being sentimental, their story touches the heart.  B+        
1917 (UK/US 2019
Director and co-writer Sam Mendes dedicates this $100 million production to his grandfather Alfred Mendes, a First World War veteran “who told us the stories”.  The date is April 6, 1917 (incidentally just days before the Canadian heroics in the Battle of Vimy Ridge) on the front in northern France (actually filmed in the UK) when two privates—Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay)—are entrusted with a vital mission.  With telephone lines cut, a warning must be hand delivered to a British battalion poised to attack the next day.  The urgent message is an order to stand down since the German plan is to draw the British troops into a trap.  At stake are 1,600 lives including Blake’s older brother.  Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch have only the briefest of cameos as the respective commanding officers at either end of this perilous mission. The focus throughout is on the two young soldiers who must leave the trenches and cross a series of hellscapes—the muddy blasted no man’s land of barbed wire, craters and corpses; abandoned and mined German trenches; an occupied town in flames—as well as other obstacles.  Add lethal threats from the air in several spectacular scenes.  At least one of the messengers must survive long enough to get through in time to avert disaster. That dire imperative is deliberately heightened by fluid kinetic camerawork following their every move to create the impression of a continuous tracking shot in real time.     
            1917 was the big winner at the Golden Globes and will surely earn some Oscar nominations.  However, the movie is far from receiving general acclaim.  The review in The Economist notes the “cinematic wizardy” but dismisses the narrative as “shallow”.  The critique by Richard Brody of The New Yorker is savage, calling out the movie’s “utter tastelessness … that’s filmed in a gimmicky way—as a simulacrum of a single long take (actually, it’s a bunch of takes that run up to nine minutes and are stitched together with digital effects to make them look continuous). Yet that visual trickery isn’t the fakest aspect of the movie. Rather, the so-called long take serves as a mask—a gross bit of earnest showmanship that both conceals and reflects the trickery and the cheap machinations of the script, the shallowness of the direction of the actors, and the brazenly superficial and emotion-dictating music score.”
            There’s no question that the cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins is designed to impress.  This is a big-budget war epic made to be seen on the biggest screen. Chapman and MacKay do good work as the soldier messengers.  For all that, the narrative is quite thin and I found myself underwhelmed, certainly compared to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk from 2017.  B+
Just Mercy (U.S. 2019
This is a compelling dramatization of the advocacy on behalf of the wrongfully convicted that is the subject of an excellent earlier 2019 HBO documentary True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Indeed Stevenson is a producer on the new film which is based on his own book Just Mercy and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton who is also a co-writer. Stevenson, a brilliant Harvard law graduate, has devoted his career as a defense attorney to representing other African Americans victimized by an unfair justice system and its prison industrial complex that keeps so many behind bars.  Michael B. Jordan takes on the role of Stevenson.  The main focus is on his work in Alabama, and in particular on the deeply flawed case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx) who was sentenced for the murder of a teenage girl and spent many years on death row. An interesting note is that it takes place in Monroe County, also the setting for the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Stevenson uncovers a travesty of errors that includes coerced false testimony from a white felon (played by Tim Blake Nelson).  He’s assisted by a local campaigner for equal justice Eva Anlsey (played by Brie Larson whose breakout role was in Cretton’s 2013 feature Short Term 12).  As Stevenson doggedly pursues the case for a new trial, and ultimately exoneration for McMillian, the film digs into deeper aspects raised by the investigation.  These include Stevenson’s dealings with a conflicted district attorney Tommy Chapman (Rafe Spall), McMillian’s state of mind, and the situations of several other death-row inmates with whom he has bonded.  By exposing the individual injustice, Stevenson puts on trial the larger system of which it is part, with an outcome that carries great emotional power. B+


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