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Late January Movie Post

Oscar thoughts
About those Oscar nominations announced January 13 ... not a lot of surprises.  (See the full list at: Although Joker is a controversial choice to lead the pack with 11 nominations.  It won’t win, except perhaps for Joaquin Phoenix in the best actor category.  He’s as amazing as the movie is deeply disturbing. Good to see the South Korean Parasite included for “best picture” as well as “best international feature”, which it will surely win.  The Two Popes should have been included to compete for the top prize instead of Ford v Ferrari (but at least Two Popes has acting nominations for Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins and one for its screenwriter Anthony McCarten).  Also good to see Parasite director Bong Joon Ho recognized in the directing category, though it’s another all-male list excluding Greta Gerwig for her wondrous remake of Little Women.  What should win is Scorsese’s The Irishman but will Netflix productions be snubbed again like Roma was last year?  Tom Hanks gets a deserved nod for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, but in the “supporting role” category for what is clearly a lead performance that carries the film.  I’ve reviewed the five best documentary features, all excellent. Missing, however, is the exceptional Apollo 11.  With two on the Syrian conflict, there could be a slight edge to American Factory (on Netflix). Below I review another outstanding doc about the late great French filmmaker Agnès Varda.  Interesting that the fascinating docudrama Honeyland is also nominated for “best international feature”, which must be a first. And see below for reviews of several other nominees in that category, including the submission by France, a somewhat controversial choice that overlooked the luminous other Cannes festival favorite Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Oscar night is February 9.
Clemency (U.S. 2019
In my last post I reviewed Just Mercy which provides some inspirational uplift in its true story of overcoming injustice in the American legal and penal systems. This harrowing prison-centred drama, awarded a grand jury prize at the 2019 Sundance film festival, doesn’t offer the same hopeful relief notwithstanding a title suggesting merciful promise.  Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu focuses attention on the experience of a female African American prison warden Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard) whose job requires supervising the execution of death row inmates. Early on her steely resolve is tested by an execution that goes horribly wrong.  Then the deadline approaches for the execution of another victim of the system, a hapless soul named Anthony Woods (Ailds Hodge) who steadfastly maintains his innocence and whose aging legal advocate Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff) expresses understandable weariness at waging another losing battle for reprieve. Through all that, and a strained marital situation, Bernadine seems determined to maintain an implacable professional face as a functionary of the system. However soul-destroying, she can’t let on.  Do the demands of “justice” multiply the victims?  That abiding question makes for some very tough viewing. A-
Varda par Agnès (France 2019
Master Belgian-French filmmaker Agnès Varda died in March of last year at age 90 but not before this superb evocation of her work, documentary as well as dramatic (and often combining both), premiered at the 2019 Berlin film festival. She is the irrepressibly curious animating spirit behind this illuminating retrospective that covers decades of innovative cinematic explorations. Part of the film includes an on-stage presentation before a rapt audience in which she comments on that legacy and presents clips from a body of work that will be treasured by any movie lover.  Varda is such an engaging personality that no one could give a better master class on why she will be remembered as one of the most significant film artists of the past 65 years. A
Les misérables (France 2019
This Parisian tale brings a fresh modern-day narrative in contrast to historical adaptations of the classic 1862 Victor Hugo novel (or, even more so, Tom Hooper’s 2012 screen version of the popular stage musical, much more successful than his recent movie revival of “Cats” badly scratched by critics). Sharing the jury prize at Cannes, it’s helmed by Mali-born Ladj Ly who co-wrote the screenplay. Amazingly this is his feature debut, expanded from an award-winning short. The setting, shared with Hugo’s masterpiece, is the crime–ridden low-income 93rd district of Montfermeil, now multicultural with a large multi-generational Muslim population of African descent.  Ravaged by riots in 2005, it’s familiar territory for Ly.
            The action opens and ends with sensational sequences involving a young boy Issa (Issa Perica) who gets into trouble. The beginning atmosphere of joyous celebration as France celebrates a soccer World Cup win disappears on the mean streets of Issa’s neighborhood patrolled by a feared and loathed “SCU” (plain-clothes street crime unit in an unmarked car). It’s led by an aggressive white alpha cop Chris (Alexis Manenti, a co-writer of the script)—at one point he screams “I am the law”—whom the locals call “pink pig”.  His partner is a black man Gwada (Jibril Zonga) who is from the area. In the back seat is a newbie Stéphane (Damien Bonnard) who’s just joined the team.  When Issa nabs a lion cub from a traveling gypsy circus it sets off a chaotic chain of events.  In the course of a frenetic pursuit we get introduced to key local figures including an unofficial “mayor” and a former thug turned Muslim leader who owns a café.  The chase culminates in an incident where Issa is shot in the face by a flash-ball gun. Chris’s realization that it was filmed by another young boy operating a drone triggers a further frantic effort to find and destroy the evidence.  Chris is more concerned with cover up than Issa’s survival, provoking tensions among the trio of cops.  As Issa becomes the battered face of police misconduct, the youth of the ‘hood, with its rundown graffiti-covered housing blocks, rise up in vengeful anger using their homemade weapons.  The last image freezes in a heart-stopping face-off, its potentially lethal outcome left unresolved except for a direct quotation from the Hugo novel: “There are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”
            This film beats with a gripping propulsive force and growls with a gritty immersive realism.  Want to see a story with real “cats” on screen?  This is the one.  A 
Corpus Christi (Poland 2019
This was among my 10 best films of 2019 so I’m thrilled that it is also among the five Oscar nominees for best international feature, having already received numerous awards.  It’s director Jan Jomasa’s third feature and draws inspiration from actual instances of priestly impersonation.
We are introduced to the central character, a young man Daniel (a remarkable performance by Bartosz Bielenia), through the hard knocks of a juvenile detention centre.  His criminal record rules out pursuing a religious vocation. But although no stranger to sins of the flesh when released on parole, Daniel holds on to a spiritual side. Sent to the workshop of a country sawmill he instead takes advantage of an opportunity to replace the elderly parish priest of the nearby town which is suffering from a recent trauma involving loss of life.  Daniel claims to be a recent graduate from the seminary and assumes the identity of “Father Tomasz” (which was the name of the prison chaplain).  Even if he has to “google” how to perform certain functions, Daniel embarks on a pastoral journey of ministering to a grieving, troubled, and divided flock. As if by divine intervention, his needs and theirs overlap.  As director Komasa puts it: “For Daniel, spiritual guidance is the only pure thing left in his life. I see his actions as a desperate attempt to tell the world what he would do if he were given a second chance.”  Can Daniel’s deception possibly last?  Whatever happens, for as long as it does his story carries with it the power of redemptive grace.  That in itself is blessing enough.  Let’s hope the Oscar boost leads to a decent Canadian release. A

For Daniel, spiritual guidance is the only pure thing left


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