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December Viewing Views and Reviews Update

 

I’m grateful to have been able to see 5 of the movies reviewed on the big screen at my cherished Ottawa independent repertory theatres: Mank, Sound of Metal, and Jimmy Carter: Rock &Roll President at the ByTowne Cinema (https://www.bytowne.ca/) and Percy and Zappa at the Mayfair Theatre (https://mayfairtheatre.ca/) which opened its doors during the Depression in 1932. Cinema can shine a light during difficult times.  (Indeed it’s worth noting that Hollywood’s greatest year was in 1939.)  So it is with great regret that today the owner of the ByTowne announced that it will be closing permanently on December 31.  I have found it to be a cinematic treasure for over 40 years.  It’s big-screen atmosphere cannot be replaced by the proliferation on online streaming options.  This is a truly sad loss and it means that there will not a single theatre left in the entire central area of the nation’s capital.  The ByTowne will be greatly missed!  I’m going there tomorrow to see the New York Cat Film Festival (https://catfilmfestival.com/).  

That said, online streaming available at home 24/7 is impossible to ignore.  And some of it is very good.  I’ve managed to get through 4 of ten episodes of The Crown’s excellent fourth season on Netflix.  The fourth episode includes a scene setting up Thatcher’s Falklands war in which Argentine forces seize remote subantarctic South Georgia Island which I visited 20 years ago in December 2000, and is the most remarkable place I’ve ever been to.  In this season Olivia Colman plays Queen Elizabeth magnificently.  She is also a narrator of the documentary Nasrin which profiles courageous Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (find out more here: https://www.nasrinfilm.com/).   I’ve also managed to watch several of the seven episodes of another hit Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit about the American girl who becomes a chess prodigy.  And HBO’s miniseries “The Undoing” came to a sensational climax last Sunday.

Read on for reviews of more titles.

Mank (U.S. 2020, in theatres and on Netflix from December 4) A+

I’m a big fan of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) TV channel, a main host of which is Ben Mankiewicz who happens to be a grandson of the legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz whose greatest achievement was collaborating with enfant terrible Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), the Hollywood classic that regularly tops polls of the best movies of all time.  “Mank” did so while bedridden with a broken leg, and he was an alcoholic as well. “Kane” was modelled on the mogul Randolph Hearst (played here by Charles Dance) and there’s a great scene of an inebriated Mank at a dinner party in Hearst’s San Simeon castle. Gary Oldman is superb in the role of Mank (deserving of a second Oscar after the one he received for playing Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour).  Also Oscar-worthy is Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, the hapless actress for whom Hearst was a sugar daddy.  David Fincher directs from a script by his father Jack, and the picture is gloriously lensed in silky black and white.   Although “Kane” is often cited for cinematographer Gregg Toland’s masterful use of deep focus, the movie’s only Oscar was for the screenplay.  This backstory of how that came about will surely be a strong awards contender in its own right.

The Real Right Stuff (U.S. 2020, Disney+/National Geographic)  A

Coming on the heels of the Disney + dramatized “Right Stuff” series, with its sometimes soap opera elements, this documentary helmed by Tom Jennings is an absorbing profile of the actual seven Mercury astronauts who paved the way for the Apollo program.  None are still living and only one ever walked on the moon. [More details at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mercury_Seven and more commentary at:https://www.thespacereview.com/article/4076/1 and https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/20/movies/the-real-right-stuff-review.html]  

Sound of Metal (U.S./Belgium 2020, in theatres and Amazon Prime Video from December 4) A

This debut feature from writer-director Darius Marder benefits from a strong performance by Riz Ahmed as the driven heavy metal drummer Ruben coping with progressive hearing loss. (See: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/riz-ahmed-sound-metal-oscar-buzz-exploring-diverse-roles-n1248176)  Ruben, who’s been living a typical hard rock lifestyle with girlfriend and band member Lou (Olivia Cooke), has to come to terms with major acceptance and adjustment issues. He enters a deaf community that includes a school for the deaf and has to learn sign language.  An especially impressive aspect is the sound design (muffled, distorted, muted) that evokes what Ruben is experiencing.  Ruben’s hearing is not coming back and that means having to live as a deaf person (including in his relationship with his father played by Mathieu Almaric, a tangent that seems rather tacked on but does not undermine the central story of overcoming personal challenge.)

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (U.S. 2020, https://www.jimmycartermovie.com/) A

*in theatres and through HotDocs at Home

If you didn’t already love and admire former one-term U.S. president Jimmy Carter before seeing this marvelous documentary helmed by Mary Wharton you should after.  As the Trumpian darkness comes to a disgraceful close, it’s also a timely reminder of the dignity, and yes grace, that has been missing from the White House the past four years. The archival footage shows Carter’s appreciation for and friendships with musical icons like Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan; and not just rock stars but also greats of the jazz, blues, classical, and country genres. (Bono reads a Carter poem. Garth Brooks is among those interviewed.)  Carter, the first and only president from Georgia, was dedicated to peace, justice and human rights at home and abroad.  I hope he will be at the forthcoming inauguration of President Joe Biden who flipped Georgia blue. The film doesn’t avoid the rough spots, covering Carter’s political downfall—the Iran hostage crisis—as well as his diplomatic achievements (the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel). Still the emphasis is on a commitment to service that includes the Carters’ exemplary humanitarian work after leaving office. We hear from Carter himself and his son along with some musical greats.  These are genuine heartfelt reflections that mark an inspiring legacy.  It’s a fitting music-powered tribute to a decent man.  And with Georgia on my mind, a blessedly welcome relief from Trump’s deranged self-absorbed deceit. Rock on!

Louis van Beethoven (Germany/Czech Republic 2020, coming to Film Movement Plus)  A-

Thinking of deaf musicians the most famous is undoubtedly Ludwig van Beethoven, affectionately called “Louis”, one of the greatest classical composers of all time.  This December marks the 250th anniversary of his birth and this historical biopic helmed by Niki Stein benefits from fine performances as well as sumptuous production design evoking the atmosphere in Beethoven’s native Germany of a turbulent era that spanned the French revolution and its aftermath.  Ludwig is played by Colin Putz as a child piano prodigy, Anselm Bresgott as a young man, and Tobias Moretti as the mature acclaimed composer who had moved from Bonn to Vienna where he met Mozart and Haydn, studying under the latter.  Beethoven was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of the times.  It is astonishing that he was already mostly deaf by the time he composed the famous Fifth Symphony and the Ninth Symphony which includes the “Ode to Joy” that has become the anthem of the European Union. 

Hillbilly Elegy (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  D+

This is a pretty terrible movie notwithstanding its apparent popularity on Netflix, and defense by an admired director and lead actresses (see: https://www.foxnews.com/entertainment/amy-adams-glenn-close-criticism-netflix-hillbilly-elegy).     The source material is the eponymous 2016 book by conservative author J.D. Vance which carried the subtitle “A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”.  Vance, who rose above his Appalachian “white trash” upbringing through Yale law school, is also an executive producer on this dramatization by liberal filmmaker Ron Howard. I have read the book which was hailed at the time as providing insight into how Trumpian populism appealed to the anxieties and afflictions of lower-class less-educated whites in rural and small-town middle America.  Howard has cast prominent admired actors in key roles: Glenn Close as the crusty salty-tongued grandmother “Mamaw”, and Amy Adams as J.D.’s addict mother Bev.  But the scenario verges on caricature … more deplorable parody than elegy.   [More withering comment at: https://www.vox.com/culture/21547861/hillbilly-elegy-review-netflix and https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hillbilly-elegy-caught-between-hollywood-and-a-hard-place.]

Percy (Canada 2020, in theatres and on demand) C+

That would be Percy Schmeiser, the Bruno, Saskatchewan farmer who engaged in a notorious legal battle with multinational giant Monsanto after being accused of using its GMO “Roundup Ready” canola in his fields without a license. This is a Saskatchewan story from an area in which I grew up on a family farm, but was filmed by director Clark Johnson in Manitoba and casts Hollywood actors in key roles, notably Christopher Walken as Percy, Zach Braff as his lawyer Jackson Weaver, and Christina Ricci as the anti-GMO activist Rebecca Salcau who enlists Percy in her organization’s crusade, even bringing him to India as part of the campaign against big bad Monsanto.  (Canadian Indigenous actor Adam Beach has a small almost incidental role as Percy’s son.)  It’s a somewhat awkward role for Percy who claims to be a simple “seed saver” to be thrust into the role of anti-GMO folk hero. After losing in the Saskatchewan courts, the case was taken on appeal all the way to the Supreme Court which rendered a 5-4 split decision in 2004, that ruled in Monsanto’s favor on the infringement of its patent but did not award damages.  (For the details see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monsanto_Canada_Inc_v_Schmeiser)  The protracted legal battles were obviously costly.  At one point we see Percy having to sell a new combine and revert back to the old green one.  (We had John Deere equipment on our farm and I recall operating the combine when still a kid in my early teens.  Those were the days!)  Presenting Schmeiser (who died in October) as a salt-of-the-earth David up against a corporate Goliath, the film evades those complexities.  Never mentioned is that Schmeiser had been Bruno’s mayor and also a Liberal MLA for the area.  It only hints that Schmeiser had less than fulsome community support.  (I’m told that some called him “Percy Shyster” due to a reputation for less than honest dealings.)  But that would not fit the film’s halo effect of a small farm family’s fight for justice.

Zappa (U.S. 2020, http://www.zappamovie.com/) A

That would be Frank Zappa, the subject of writer-director Alex Winter’s engrossing in-depth documentary, six years in the making, about the legendary rock musician and disturber of the peace who morphed into a more mainstream anti-establishment figure who even testified before Congress. Back in the 1960s Zappa, the iconoclast and guru of Laurel Canyon, fronted the “Mothers of Invention” rock group. (There’s a brief archival clip of the “Mothers” playing a 1969 gig in Ottawa.) Zappa, who also dabbled in film and later composed orchestral works, accumulated a huge personal archival trove before his death from prostate cancer at age 52 exactly 27 years ago to this day. Winter has rich sources to draw from in addition to interviews with contemporaries and Zappa’s widow Gail who died in 2015.  Zappa was an unusual character to say the least.  His recording of “Valley Girl” with first child, a daughter named Moon Unit, became a hit in 1982.  We also hear a bit from son Dweezil.  Zappa famously spoofed the cover of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper album and, as the Cold War came to an end, he was greeted as a hero in Czechoslovakia and appointed the new democratic government’s cultural and trade representative to the U.S.  For more on everything Zappa see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Zappa.

 

 

 

 

 

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