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Late January Post of Views and Reviews

             First a note that for pandemic delay reasons the Oscar nominations for 2020 will not be announced till March 15, with the awards ceremony delayed till April 25.  I am also going to hold off on my 2020 “best of choices”.  Except that my #1 drama is certain to be Nomadland which continues to earn plaudits.  (It’s the top choice of the U.S. National Society of Film Critics. For more see: https://variety.com/2021/film/news/nomadland-national-society-of-film-critics-1234881999/.)  

        It will come as no surprise that global box-office earnings for 2020 dropped by some 80% (https://variety.com/2021/film/box-office/box-office-final-revenues-2020-coronavirus-pandemic-1234879082/) and this year’s prospects  are dimmed by continuing shutdowns.  The shift to online streaming will continue.  Indeed the biggest spender on production Netflix aims to release a new movie a week this year and that’s not counting the flood of multi-episode series including on other platforms, all in overdrive. I’ll mention a few of the best.

CBC is now showing the six-episode BBC series Les Misérables (A) on Sunday nights and also streaming on CBC Gem. This is a first-rate production that does full justice to the details of the classic Victory Hugo novel.

            Also on TV, HBO recently brought back a marathon re-airing of the 10-epsisode series The Righteous Gemstones from 2019 (A).  Created by Danny McBride, it delights in satirizing the shameless behavior of a family of American televangelists (led by John Goodman as patriarch Eli Gemstone, with McBride as heir apparent Jesse Gemstone) while they rake in the cash.  It’s cleverly uproarious and entertaining as hell (no pun intended). [For insightful comment see: https://www.slantmagazine.com/tv/review-the-righteous-gemstones-is-an-uneven-but-compelling-study-of-faith/.]  And in January 2021 HBO served up a two-part/three-hour+ documentary Tiger (A-), directed by Matthew Heineman and Matthew Hamacheck, that follows the exceptional rise of golf great Tiger Woods and his equally dramatic fall from grace.

            The surfeit of streaming series continues.  Netflix has added a 7-episode French series “Lupin” inspired by author Maurice Leblanc’s “gentleman burglar” Arsène Lupin.  Omar Sy plays the thief as a Assane Diop, a Senegalese immigrant in Paris with a score to settle. (A)  [More comment at: https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/lupin-tv-review-2021-netflix.]  Netflix even has a new 6-epsiode series “History of Swear Words” hosted by Nicolas Cage.  (If you must know more see: https://readysteadycut.com/2021/01/05/history-of-swear-words-netflix-review/.)   I do love New York City having made past regular visits to cover the Tribeca film festival founded by Robert De Niro.  So I enjoyed the 7-episode Netflix series Pretend It’s a City (A) in which master filmmaker Martin Scorsese engages with inimitable humorist contrarian, stroller and raconteur Fran Lebowitz as she muses on all things Big Apple. The mix includes amusing snippets, sequences of Fran amid the “Panorama” scale model of the metropolis created for the 1964 world’s fair, conversations inside “The Players” watering hole next to a pool table, the odd film clip, and bits of Fran bantering with filmmaker Spike Lee, the late novelist Toni Morrison and actor Alec Baldwin. A decade earlier Scorsese and Lebowitz had collaborated on the documentary Public Speaking.  Lebowitz, in her trademark garb of bespoke men’s suit jackets and rolled-up Levis over cowboy boots, sure has the gift of the gab and doesn’t disappoint.  [For more comment see: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/01/25/the-delights-of-new-york-fran-lebowitz-and-martin-scorseses-laugh.]

A Perfect Planet (UK 2021, 5 episodes, BBC Earth, https://bbcearth.ca/)  A+

So far I’ve seen “Volcano”, “The Sun”, and “Weather” available on the BBC Earth channel through the Amazon Prime Video platform.  These deliver a constant astonishment of striking images and remarkable facts, some truly stranger than fiction.  At 94, narrator Sir David Attenborough is still going strong and this may be his most awesome series yet. [For more info on it see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Perfect_Planet.  Watch Sir David’s introductory message here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQnDVqGIv4s and see also: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2264866-a-perfect-planet-review-attenboroughs-new-show-is-one-of-his-best/.]  BBC Earth also carries superb previous Attenborough series, such as “Dynasties” [see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynasties_(2018_TV_series)]  

Pieces of a Woman (U.S./Canada/Norway/Hungary 2020, Netflix) A-

Directed by Kórnel Mundruczô from a screenplay by his partner Kata Wéber, this distressing drama quickly goes from the expectant joys of pregnancy to a lengthy wrenching sequence of difficult birth pangs with a dire outcome. Set in Boston (actually filmed in a wintry Montreal), Martha (Vanessa Kirby, awarded best actress at the Venice film festival) is the mother to be who with her husband Sean (a heavily bearded Shia LaBeouf) has opted for a home birth. When a replacement midwife Eva (Molly Parker) gets called in to assist with the excruciating labour there are fateful complications that leave Martha bereft.  And Sean, who has battled addictions in the past, proves to be a less than stable or faithful partner.  Making matters worse is Martha’s angry mother Elizabeth (Ellen Burstyn still feisty at 88, a likely Oscar best supporting actress nominee) who, blaming the midwife, involves a young female lawyer, a cousin of Martha’s, in a tense court case. Elizabeth also never liked Sean, using her financial means to try to separate him from Martha. As everything becomes more fraught the emotional temperature rises. A tough movie to watch, it comes with a caution about harrowing scenes and adult content. [See also: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/pieces-of-a-woman-reviewed-a-tale-of-grief-gets-lost-in-the-details.]

Herself  (Ireland/UK 2020, Amazon Prime Video)  A-

This Sundance selection helmed by Phyllida Lloyd concerns a young woman Sandra (Clare Dunne, also the co-writer) who escapes an abusive relationship with her two small daughters.  Sandra has a part-time job in a Dublin bar and is a carer for a sympathetic doctor Peggy (Harriet Walter) recovering from a hip operation.  Peggy gives Sandra money and land in her large yard for a self-build house that takes shape through the efforts of a contractor and his son she convinces to help with the project as assisted by a circle of friends and supporters.  At the same time Sandra has to contend with tense court proceedings over child visitation. The worst blow is a vengeful act by her ex-partner. Yet as the title suggests, Sandra finds the resolve in herself to surmount these struggles and setbacks. 

Shirley (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video)  B+

Helmed by Josephine Decker and adapted from a Susan Merrell book, the Shirley in question is the troubled author Shirley Jackson as portrayed by Elizabeth Moss.  Jackson came to wide attention when her short story “The Lottery”, published in The New Yorker in 1948, achieved notoriety. An early scene has a young woman Rose (Odessa Young), after reading the story on a train, initiating bathroom sex with husband Fred (Logan Lerman). When Fred later becomes a teaching assistant to Shirley’s husband, English professor Stanley Hyman (a bearded Michael Stulhlbarg, who plays the crime boss in the Showtime series “Your Honor”), the young couple are invited to stay in Shirley and Stanley’s Vermont home. The atmosphere gets stranger fast.  While Shirley, who seems unable to leave the house, lives inside her perverse imagination, Stanley is openly unfaithful.  Outside the home, a girl in the area goes missing.  Inside it the couples’ interactions become a psychodrama as disturbing as what Shirley puts on the page.  

One Night in Miami (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video)  A

I would only have been 11 back in rural Saskatchewan but I seem to remember hearing on the radio the famous boxing match in February 1964 when underdog Cassius Clay (Eli Goree)—soon to become Muhammad Ali—defeated Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. The focus is not on the boxing but on how, as adapted by Kemp Powers from his eponymous play, Clay’s triumph sets the stage for post-match interactions in a motel with three Black friends—Malcom X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), “Mr. Soul” singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), and football star Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).  Although the mood is mostly celebratory, there are also reflective moments, arguments, and occasional outbursts.  The context includes the continuing racism of the times, the emerging Black Power movement, and the relationship to a troubled Nation of Islam.  This is an impressive ensemble and of note is that the all-male cast is directed by a female African American actress (and Oscar winner) Regina King. The film, one of the year’s best, also closes with a stirring rendition of Cooke’s 1963 anthem “A Change Gonna Come” (listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEBlaMOmKV4). 

76 Days (China/U.S. 2020, https://www.76daysfilm.com/watch, video on demand)  A+

I was able to view this astonishing and intimate documentary on January 23, the one-year anniversary of the Covid-19 lockdown that began in Wuhan, a city of 11 million in China’s Hubei province.  And that viewing was followed by a 45-minute conversation, sponsored by New York’s Film Forum, between Indiewire critic David Ehrlich and New York-based lead director Hao Wu (The People’s Republic of Desire) who worked with two Chinese co-directors, one anonymous. The title refers to the duration of the lockdown which ended in April 2020.  The roving footage from four hospitals brings us up close and personal with the efforts of frontline medical staff—swathed in PPE (personal protective equipment) from head to toe—to save lives as the outbreak rages.  There are last calls to loved ones and the disinfecting of mementos from those who have passed. Individual characters also emerge.  One old guy—a proud Communist Party member with dementia—is a real handful.  Amid so much desperation and darkness there are also deeply human moments (including a birth by C-section).  There is also a birth among the hospital scenes (including in a temporary emergency facility) in another recent China/U.S. documentary Wuhan Wuhan (https://www.wuhanwuhandoc.com/ A) helmed by Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze).  The focus is on a briefer period during the lockdown but with a wider scope that extends to the city and the home life of a volunteer driver.   This adds perspective though the effect is less intense than the constant life-threatened drama of 76 Days.

[*These highly personal films about the early months of the pandemic in the origin country stand out, although they will surely be joined by other documentaries that assess the pandemic more broadly, including in terms of policy failures and government responses.]

Nasrin (U.S. 2020, https://www.nasrinfilm.com/, video on demand from January 26) A+

From writer-director Jeff Kaufman, with some narration by British actress Olivia Colman, this excellent and engaging documentary profiles the courageous Iranian human rights defender Nasrin Soutedeh.  In her decades-long struggles as a human rights lawyer, notably on behalf of the rights of women and children, Nasrin has suffered periods of imprisonment.  She received another severe sentence in 2019 and was held in the notorious Evin prison.  (*As a personal note I was in Tehran in 2003 with a Canadian parliamentary delegation when relations with Iran were very fraught after the death of Canadian dual citizen Zahra Kazemi in that prison. For more and updated information on Nasrin see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nasrin_Sotoudeh) For this film the footage inside Iran had to be obtained through clandestine means. There’s also a scene from acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s Taxi in which Nasrin appears as a passenger. Together with other human rights activists like Nobel prize winner Shirin Ebadi, Nasrin’s witness draws attention to the continuing gross violations of human rights taking place in Iran.  Nasrin is also a truly remarkable subject.  One hopes the premise behind this film is correct, that: “Art is the best way to take on tyranny.”  The world needs more Nasrins.

My Octopus Teacher (South Africa, 2020, Netflix) A

This terrific documentary directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed follows the unusual relationship that develops between a free diver Craig Foster (also a filmmaker in his own right) and a friendly-curious female octopus in its ocean surroundings. What the film communicates effectively, perhaps as much as any David Attenborough documentary, is the respectful connection that humans should feel towards our fellow creatures and the life on this singular planet we share.

Spoor (Poland/Germany/Czech Republic/Sweden/Slovakia/France 2017, video on demand) B+

It’s taken a few years for this strange drama from Polish director Agnieszka Holland (awarded a “silver bear” at the 2017 Berlin film festival) to become available in North America.  An indication of the dark weirdness is the title of the source material—the book Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. The main character is an older woman Duszjeko whose two dogs she calls “daughters” become victims of local hunters, some of whom then start turning up dead.  An animal defender, she also attracts several human male companions.  The atmosphere is a gothic brew of bizarre elements that include astrology, traditional Catholicism (a church is set on fire and a priest dies), and eco-revenge motivations.  In the apt description of an Indiewire review, be prepared for a “subversive animal rights horror-thriller”.

True Mothers (Japan 2020)  B

Directed by Naomi Kawase, this intimate drama that was a selection of the 2020 Toronto film festival is Japan’s official entry to the Oscar best international feature competition.  The birth mother is a teenager named Hikari, pregnant at age 14, who goes to a facility “Baby Baton” that also provides adoption services.  The other main characters are a middle-class couple, Satoko and wife Kiyokazu, who unable to conceive are keen to adopt. They become the doting parents of Hikari’s infant son Asato.  But complications arise when Hikari has a change of heart and goes to the couple asking for the return of her son.  It is affecting but the drawn-out length (140 minutes) drains some of the intensity.  

Dara of Jasenovac  (Serbia 2020, to be released February 5)  A-

Directed by Predrag Antonijevic, this is Serbia’s submission to the Oscar international feature competition.  We still need Holocaust dramas like this to be reminded of the danger of mass atrocities when populations submit to totalitarian rule.  (I note as well that Slovakia’s Oscar entry is The Auschwitz Report).  Drawing on survivor testimonies, this is the first film to be made about the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, known as the “Balkan Auschwitz”, created when a formerly far-right terrorist organization, the ‘Ustaše’, established a puppet regime allied with the German Third Reich and carried out racial genocide against Serbian Slavs as well as Jews and Roma. Dara is a 10-year old girl who tries to survive the camp with her baby brother. She bears witness to searing scenes as the captors normalize sadism and savagery. (That the latter include several nuns points to a shameful degree of collaboration by the Roman Catholic Church.)  While beyond the scope of this film to consider, we know that the fascist menace didn’t disappear from Croatian society and that victims can become oppressors.  History’s tragedies are sometimes repeated as in the Balkan civil wars of the 1990s when it was Serbian leaders responsible for crimes against humanity including genocide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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