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November Viewing Update

 

Hallelujah, I did actually get to see 2 movies on the big screen: Ammonite at Ottawa’s ByTowne Cinema (https://www.bytowne.ca/) and The Climb at the Mayfair (https://mayfairtheatre.ca/).  God knows for how long.  Beyond that,  are streaming options galore. Netflix’s fourth season of “The Crown” is earning plaudits .. more next time. HBO has two excellent new series: “The Undoing” and the docuseries “Murder on Middle Beach” helmed by a son investigating his mother’s murder.  Ottawa’s European Union film festival in its 35th year is presenting 27 films—for the first time online across Canada (check out: https://www.euffonline.ca/welcome).  November 13 started with a wonderful 2018 German film All About Me (the German title translates as “The Boy Needs Fresh Air”). Director Caroline Link’s focus is on the boyhood of Hans-Peter (Hape) Kerkeling based on his autobiography.  One of Germany’s most loved comedians he overcame family tragedy (and in 2001also penned a memoir of walking the Camino de Santiago).

Read on for more reviews:

Ammonite (UK/Australia/US 2020, http://www.see-saw-films.com/film/ammonite#visuals) B

Francis Lee helms this period drama with a difference set in England’s Dorset coast during the 1840s. The title references findings by noted fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who lives with her ailing sour-faced tubercular mother.  Mary is a solitary soul who smokes and dresses plainly. That routine is disrupted when she is visited by a young couple, geologist Roderick Murchison and wan wife Charlotte (James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan) whose relationship is troubled—joyless if not sexless—given Charlotte’s melancholic disposition.  Hoping that a change and the sea air will help, Roderick arranges for Charlotte to stay on.  (A local doctor who makes an appearance is played by Alec Secareanu who had a key role in Lee’s transgressive God’s Own Country opposite Josh O’Connor who plays Prince Charles in the Netflix series The Crown.  I met both actors at the 2017 Sundance film festival.)  While sharing a bed, the icy repression between the spinster and the unhappy bride gradually melts into forbidden sexual release. Charlotte comes alive though of course the affair ends when she rejoins her husband in a fine London house.  After the mother expires, Mary is even tempted to visit, and shown a room that Charlotte has prepared for her to stay.  But of course this rather dour semi-historical version (Mary Anning was an actual 19th century paleontologist) isn’t primed for any fairy tale ending.  Comparisons will be made with last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire but this smoldering story never quite catches fire.  It makes for a rather dull affair.  Indeed I enjoyed Anthony Lane’s superbly witty New Yorker review more than the movie.     

The Right Stuff (U.S. 2020, 8 episodes, Disney+ National Geographic)  B+

Like the 1983 movie, this is based on Tom Wolfe’s eponymous 1979 book about the American test pilots who became the first Mercury astronauts as the U.S. tried to catch up to the Soviet “evil empire” in the Cold War space race, an anxiety that was heightened as the Russians were the first to put a man in space.  Based on the first seven episodes released so far it does a decent job of exploring the men, their relationships, and the times.  It doesn’t gloss over the failings and setbacks that include conflicts, rivalries, infidelities and indiscretions.  A significant focus is on the even-tempered John Glenn as a devout Christian and the hotshot Alan Shephard who comes across as an arrogant jerk who can’t keep it zipped (and who was also concealing a medical condition that later sidelined him for years.)   Yet it was Shepherd who earned the distinction of being the first American in space in 1961.  In the 7th episode, in which launch preparations were accelerated to give JFK a “win” after the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, the pre-launch tensions between Shephard and his backup Glenn come to a head.  [*Shepherd would also get to walk on the moon in 1971.  Glenn, who became a Democratic Senator from Ohio, never did, though at age 77 he became the oldest human to fly into space. More at: https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/the-right-stuff-is-an-unexpectedly-gripping-workplace-drama-about-the-space-race.]   

The Wild Goose Lake (China/France 2019, Film Movement Plus, https://www.filmmovementplus.com/)  B+

China has been almost rivaling America as the most important market for releasing commercial cinema, and China also seems to be recovering much better and sooner from the effects of the Covid pandemic, trends that bear watching.  China is also exporting its films.  This latest feature from writer-director Y’nan Diao (Black Coal, Thin Ice), which premiered at the 2019 Cannes festival, might be described as underworld crime noir with a Chinese accent. The characters at the centre are a gangster Zhou Zenon and a sex worker (“bathing beauty”) Liu Aiai. Their world of amoral materialist consumption and competition would be the envy of any mafia capitalist.  Forget about socialist solidarity on these mean streets. The result is visually arresting, but be warned, also very violent and even seedy. 

Coded Bias (U.S./China/UK 2020, on demand) A-

Writer-director Shalini Kantayya investigates the uses and misuses of facial recognition technologies, notably in regard to implicit racial and gender biases. With the encroaching world of artificial intelligence and proliferating algorithms, this leads to a critique of Big Tech and more generally the expanding surveillance systems of capitalist societies, not just of totalitarian state control as in China.  Among those interviewed are Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, and members of movements like Big Brother Watch UK and the Algorithmic Justice League.  Brave new world indeed.  [More commentary at: https://www.fastcompany.com/90574012/the-coded-bias-documentary-is-an-inconvenient-truth-for-big-tech-algorithms]  

I Am Greta (Sweden 2020, Hulu/Crave, https://www.iamgretafilm.com/)  B

Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish scold of the climate crisis movement, must be the first 15-year old girl to have a feature film dedicated to her.  And director Nathan Grossman doesn’t even mention that she graced the cover of Time magazine as its 2019 “Person of the Year”.  We see how a few years back Greta in pigtails began a solitary “school strike for climate” outside the Swedish Parliament.  She had become depressed, stopping eating and talking, after learning about the dire projections of climate change in school. Naturally her supportive parents were concerned.  No longer able to use airlines, her mother had to end her career as an opera singer. No mention of that and we see much more of her father who helped Greta take a sailboat across the Atlantic to attend a UN climate conference.  (More details on her travels here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyage_of_Greta_Thunberg.)  Greta has several mental conditions including Asperger’s syndrome and her rise to righteous global icon status—sparking a youth-led “Fridays for Future” movement and meeting with world leaders—is not without controversy.  The documentary hints at that but misses a deeper exploration of the phenomenon of celebrity in the age of social media. Nor is there anything on the climate science about which Greta is so certain. I might add that this pandemic year of online meetings over Zoom, webinars, etc. shows that travel to distant places is hardly necessary to communicate a message. Even before, Greta could have been seen and heard over almost carbon-neutral Skype from Stockholm.  But it took Greta’s worldly in-person appearances and applause to generate her rise to fame.  Reflection on that awaits another movie. [More commentary at: https://www.indiewire.com/2020/09/i-am-greta-review-thunberg-documentary-1234584091/.]    

The Climb (U.S. 2019, https://www.sonyclassics.com/film/theclimb) B+

In Michael Angelo Covino’s dramedy, which drew favorable notices at Cannes and Sundance, he plays Mike as the best bud of Kyle (Kyle Marvin who shares a writing credit). The title refers to the bookend segments in which the duo are cyclists pedaling hard up an incline somewhere in France. In the first minutes Mike confesses to Kyle that he has slept with Kyle’s fiancé which becomes something like a running (pedaling?) gag as the friendship nevertheless endures several more bumps in the road through scenes that include a wedding ceremony in a church.  More than just a goofy buddy comedy, that main pleasures are in watching these two big tall bearded guys play off one another with sharp wit and smart timing that’s worth the climb and the time.

The Life Ahead (Italy 2020, Netflix)  A-

Screen legend Sophia Loren may be 86 but she still knows how to deliver in this affecting drama directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, a remake of the 1977 film Madame Rosa based on a Romain Gary novel. Loren is Madame Rosa, an aging Holocaust survivor and former streetwalker who cares for several children of immigrant sex workers including a Spanish trans woman. Pressed by a kindly doctor (Renato Carpenyieri) she reluctantly agrees to give a home to a 12 year old Senegalese orphan “Momo” (Ibrahima Gueye) who is a handful to say the least. He steals and sells drugs for a sleazy dealer.  Despite the odd pairing a bond develops between the street-smart boy and the ailing old lady who sometimes retreats to a sanctuary that Momo calls her “batcave”.  Momo learns more than just a few words of Hebrew or how to repair a carpet of Islamic design. In doing so he also honours her last wishes.  Pointi adds a few magic realist touches of a lioness’s caress but it is that special heartfelt relationship that lights up the screen.

Free Lunch Express (U.S. 2020, on demand) C+

Writer-director Lenny Britton has a white-haired Malcom McDowell (remember him from Clockwork Orange?) narrate this farcical take on the Bennie Sanders biography.   Jonah Britton (Lenny’s son?) plays the boyish Bernie as an admirer of the Soviet Union and Stalin.  Producer Sam Brittan spoofs “middle Bernie” and Charles Hutchins glowers and growls as “older Bernie”.  Whether or not you “feel the Bern”,  no Sanders parody could possibly match the current Trumpian “shenanigans” in refusing to accept defeat at the polls after being “grabbed by the ballot” as one priceless sign put it.  Let’s see what role Bernie has in a Biden administration.  Maybe then better material for a sequel?

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