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First New Year Post of 2021

 With most theatres closed, streaming is increasingly the future of cinema. And the major platforms are investing heavily.  Annual spending by Netflix alone has grown to C$20 billion. I won’t compile my “best of 2020” list till later but number 1 is sure to be Nomadland, so as to why it speaks to the current moment see this commentary: https://www.indiewire.com/2020/12/how-nomadland-captured-the-essence-of-2020-1234606135/.  

If you are not already heartily sick of Christmas movies, Netflix has a Santa bag full.  Though sappy, The Christmas Chronicles: Part Two from Chris Columbus is a sporadically diverting sequel to 2018’s The Christmas Chronicles. Kurt Russell is the jolly purveyor of Christmas spirit with real-life partner Goldie Hawn as Mrs. Claus and oodles of hyperactive animated “elves”. Of course, Santa has a sleigh driven by reindeer, though a snarling snow leopard attacks Dasher so it’s not all sweetness and light. In addition, the kid/absent dad story carried over from the first chronicle gets a new time-bending twist, and there’s a new character Belsnickel, a naughty former elf played by Julian Dennison (the Kiwi fat kid from Hunt for the Wilderpeople). Throw in a Cancun beach scene and one of airport chaos … all very pre-Covid of course.

            Speaking of which, and whether to laugh or cry, on December 27 Netflix also put out a humorous 80-minute special “Death to 2020” that pokes fun at all the maladies of the past year—including the effects of the Trump virus on a befuddled America. Obviously hundreds of thousands of deaths is no laughing matter.   Call me crazy or insensitive but some of the skits offered lol comic relief.

            With so much on TV and via online streaming, the titles proliferate.  Thanks to Hugh Finsten for reminding me that Crave has shown the excellent drama by writer-director Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, an award winner at both the 2019 Sundance and Berlin film festivals.  [More comment at: https://theplaylist.net/never-rarely-sometimes-always-sundance-review-20200125/.] And don’t forget about the public library affiliated Kanopy platform on which I recently watched the excellent 2019 World War II Russian drama Beanpole (https://www.kinolorber.com/film/view/id/3731) which is set in Leningrad in 1945.

Now on to my top pick and a few others.

Soul (U.S. 2020, https://www.pixar.com/soul Disney+) A+

Co-directed and co-written by Pete Doctor who brought us 2015’s animated wonder Inside Out, this magical collaboration of Pixar and Disney studios is without question the best animated feature of 2020.   The main character is Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx), a somewhat care-worn African American New York jazz musician who supplements income by teaching band to schoolkids.   After a fall and loss of consciousness he enters a supernatural realm, before and after the “great beyond”, where he meets a yet-to-be-born soul simply named “22” (voiced by Tina Fey).  Oh and there’s a role for a “therapy cat” too.  Of course, it’s a fable, the inspirational fantasy of which contrasts with Joe’s previous daily life.   But let yourself go with the flow of this soulful story and be rewarded with some welcome seasonal sweetness and light.  And do also watch the 16-minute bonus short film “Burrow” that follows the main feature.

Bridgerton (U.S./UK 2020, 8 episodes, Netflix) A

An indication of Netflix’s extremely deep pockets is the extravagant production design of this historical costume drama, released Christmas Day, created by Chris Van Dusen adapting the eponymous novels of Julia Quinn.   Set in early 19th century England, it’s more a fantasy history, with persons of colour and different ethnicities occupying lead roles in aristocratic high society.  That includes Queen Charlotte whose outlandish adorned wigs are a sight to behold. [For commentary see: https://www.oprahmag.com/entertainment/tv-movies/a35083112/bridgerton-race-historical-accuracy/.]  Plenty of racy scenes add erotic spice to the narrative, along with the titillating gossip aroused by an eagerly read “Society Papers” scandal sheet from a mysterious “Lady Whistledown” (voiced by series narrator Julie Andrews). As in a Jane Austen novel, finding the right match for young ladies of marriageable age is a running theme.  Most attention falls on eldest daughter Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), protected by rakish elder brother Anthony (Jonathan Bailey) who goes up against a handsome eligible Black man, Simon, Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page).  Although a Prussian prince enters the picture fleetingly, it’s the Daphne and Simon story that captivates even as further fraught liaisons stir the Bridgerton’s social circle. Matters of consequence continue into the last episode’s closing minutes, making for a delicious viewing indulgence in anticipation of season two.

Sylvie’s Love (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video)  B+

From writer-director Eugene Ashe, this Sundance selection is largely an African American story that opens in 1962 in Harlem where Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) watches TV in her dad’s record shop.  It’s where she connects with Bobby (Nnamdi Asomugha), ace saxophone player in a jazz combo with aspirations to be a band leader recording his own songs.  Although Sylvie is engaged to someone else, she gets pregnant by Bobby, then conceals the fact as he heads off to a gig in Paris. Jump ahead five years and Sylvie is married to Lacy Parker (Alano Miller) with a daughter Michelle.  Sylvie, an assistant to the producer of a TV cooking show, has developed her own successful career.  Another side angle involving her cousin Mona links to the civil rights movement. However, as the movie’s title suggests, the main focus remains on “man of her dreams” Bobby.  After they reconnect it’s no surprise when Sylvie splits from Lacy.  Bobby pretends to have a job lined up in Detroit’s Motown.  But jazz has given way to pop rock.  So he becomes an auto worker instead.  In place of a dream ending, another chapter begins in the Sylvie and Bobby story.

***

I was so keen to see the documentary Boys State that I started a 7-day free trial of Apple TV+ and took advantage to view a half dozen titles as follows. (There are also multiple series I have yet to sample.)

Boys State (U.S. 2020, Apple TV+) A+

Deserving winner of a Sundance grand jury prize, this outstanding documentary is helmed by the team of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (The Overnighters).  It also won an award at Austin’s South By Southwest festival during which I have had occasion to visit the legislative rooms of the Texas Capitol where the main action takes place.  Since the 1930s the American Legion has been supporting these exercises in democratic governance by teenage students.  So imagine a thousand 17-year old boys brought together for a not always fully civil exchange, divided into two contending parties the “Federalists” and the “Nationalists”.  Indeed the film opens with this 1796 warning by George Washington: “[Political] parties are likely to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government.” (And what about a conniving “populist” like Donald Trump who, in the name of the people, captures a party in a cult of personality and then uses personal power to subvert the institutions of government?)   Apparently the 2017 Texas boys assembly notoriously voted to secede, and the manoeuvrings captured here are from the 2018 session. We get fascinating insights into the often boisterous, raw and raucous proceedings as strategies play out in formal assemblies and in the back corridors. With everyone wielding smartphones, social media smear tactics are among the political arts.  The filmmakers focus on a few subjects for compelling personal stories reflecting the diverse backgrounds of the participants.  It turns out that a disabled boy Ben Feldstein (a double amputee in fact) is one of the most conservative and unscrupulous operators, in contrast to a Mexican-American candidate for governor Steven Garza.  As scheming boys play political games one is reminded that they are soon-to-be actual voters.  That may be a scary thought, but it’s also the enduring challenge of mass democracy which, as Churchill once said, is “the worst system of government except for all the others.”

Greyhound (U.S./Canada/China 2020, https://www.greyhound.movie/ Apple TV+) A-

This is the first of two 2020 Tom Hanks starring roles to draw deserved admiration.  Set during the World War II Battle of the Atlantic, Hanks plays Naval Commander Ernest Krause, a man of deep faith who is charged with protecting vital convoys of ships making the treacherous crossing from the marauding “wolfpacks” of German U-boats who send out chilling messages to their targets. Though not as viscerally intense as Hank’s memorable role in Saving Private Ryan, we get a sense of the high stakes and ever-present dangers when a torpedo hit leads to a funeral service and burial at sea. With a screenplay by Hanks himself, adapting C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd”, director Aaron Schneider delivers a compelling war drama, and who better than the reliably upstanding Hanks to portray the role of trusted captain?

WolfWalkers (Ireland/Luxembourg/France/Denmark/UK/U.S. 2020, Apple TV+) A+

Among last year’s best animated features this folkloric Celtic fable set in 17th century Kilkenny, Ireland (where production company Cartoon Saloon is headquartered) rates a close second. From Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart, creators of The Secret of the Kells, the 2D animation is a wonder of enchantment. A stern English ‘Lord Protector” exercises colonial control that includes ridding the woods of wolves.  Up against that are the central female characters—Robyn, daughter of a hunter, and the wolfish Mebh who wants to rescue her mother. From Mebh, Robyn discovers the secret of wolfwalkers (humans who transform into wolves while asleep). When Robyn escapes scullery duty and acquires wolf vision these new powers work their charms. The wolf howls are not to be feared as the tale of Robyn and Mebh’s alliance casts a truly magical spell. 

Hala (U.S. 2019, Apple TV+)  A

This semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama from writer-director Minhal Baig centres on a teenage Muslim girl Hala Masood (Geraldine Viswanathan), only child of Pakistani immigrant parents.  Her strict mother speaks only Urdu to her.  Hala faithfully wears a hijab.  At the same time she’s also a skateboarder who discovers sex with a first boyfriend, a classmate Jesse played by Jack Kilmer. (I discovered that Kilmer shares my birth date of June 6, just 43 years younger!)  When Hala causes potential trouble for a sympathetic teacher, her mother gets called in.  But resisting the pressures from a family that itself won’t hold together, Hala is determined at set her own course.    

Dads (U.S. 2019, Apple TV+)  A-

From director Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of director Ron Howard, who started as a child actor, comes this affectionate and appealing look at fatherhood. There is a nostalgic element given that some of   the dads profiled (including Ron) are well-known American showbiz figures.  Athough the vibe tends toward inspirational and aspirational over incisively insightful, there are some heavier issues engaged. And among the dads are a Brazilian blogger, stay-at-home dads, foster dads, and gay dads, so this isn’t just a tribute to whitebread “father knows best” convention.  

Beastie Boys Story (U.S. 2020, https://blog.beastieboys.com/ Apple TV+) A-

Collaborator Spike Jones has fashioned this tribute from the 2019 live stage shows presented at Brooklyn’s King’s Theatre by Adam Horovitz and Mike D, the surviving members of the ‘Beastie Boys” trio of Jewish New Yorkers that emerged on the pop scene in the late 1970s and achieved major success as a rock-band amalgam of punk, rap and hip-hop until creative force Adam Yauch (aka :MCA”) died of cancer in 2012.  The only music is from archival clips as introduced by Adam and Mike covering the band’s turbulent history.  (If interested in details see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beastie_Boys.) I never listened to them, much less was a fan, but found the show surprisingly engaging.   

The King of Staten Island (U.S. 2020, https://www.uphe.com/movies/the-king-of-staten-island

Crave)  C+

From Judd Apatow, this is another typically vulgar and overlong semi-comedy.  The central character Scott Carlin is played by co-writer and Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson as a version of himself.  (Davidson lost his father Scott, a firefighter, on 9/11, and this Scott’s father is also a firefighter who was killed on the job.) The gawky Scott, covered in tattoos, is a 24-year old man-child stoner who lives with his mom Margie (played by Marisa Tomei) while having casual sex with girlfriend Kelsey (Brit actress Bel Powley). Although he has a job waiting tables, he’s basically a loser with health issues and few if any prospects.  Some potential developments arise after Margie gets a new man in her life, amiable bald-headed Ray (Bill Burr), also a firefighter. But I didn’t care enough about this “king” to wonder if her will ever grow up.

*Note: News of the World will not be released widely until mid-January but you can watch a 37-minute conversation with lead actor Tom Hanks here: https://collider.com/tom-hanks-interview-news-of-the-world/.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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