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Ides of August View and Reviews

 

The streaming cornucopia continues, spurred by pandemic restrictions keeping many at home.  Netflix alone spends a staggering US$17 billion annually on content, and according to a report in The Economist now earns more than half its revenues outside North America. Amazon, Apple, and Disney have also gone global with rival services.  Almost every day Netflix keeps adding numerous docuseries worth checking out.  There’s even one on World War II events in colour. Over on Apple TV+ there’s a second season of the delightful comedy series Ted Lasso (A) as well as a new series Mr. Corman (B+) created and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a grade-school teacher looking for connection.

On Amazon Prime Video is The Pursuit of Love (A) set in Britain between the world wars, a three-episode adaptation of the eponymous 1945 novel by Nancy Mitford.  Also on Amazon is an excellent documentary Val (A), directed by Ting Poo and Leo Scott.  It’s a fascinating profile of the sometimes troubled and turbulent life of American actor Val Kilmer which draws from a collection of thousands of hours of videos, audition tapes, and home movies. There are several clips from his iconic roles (e.g., as Batman, as Jim Morrison of “The Doors”, in Top Gun) but it’s the personal side that most engages. We learn about his upbringing (including the tragic death of a talented brother at age 15), his brilliant early promise on the stage (later he would play Mark Twain in a one-man show), doomed marriage to actress Joanne Whalley, and much more.  Since contracting throat cancer his voice has been reduced to a croak but he is still very much the subject of an amazing life. [Speaking of aging stars, Clint Eastwood is still amazingly active at 91, directing and performing in Cry Macho due for a mid-September release. Kudos to my Ottawa independent theatre the Mayfair for bringing a retrospective of his iconic 1960s “spaghetti westerns” to the big screen.] 

Netflix too has added a worthy documentary Misha and the Wolves (Belgium/UK 2021, A) in which director Sam Hobkinson relates the story of Misha Fonseca who claimed to be a Holocaust survivor. After her parents were deported by the Nazis she took refuge in the woods and became companion to a wolf pack. This was the basis for a bestselling memoir and a film adaptation. Now living in the U.S. Misha does seem to have a special rapport with wolves.  However investigation reveals that Misha’s account is almost all fictional invention.  (For more comment see: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/sundance-review-misha-and-the-wolves.) 

            The New Yorker issue of August 9 suggested more streaming tips, including the wacky and ribald sketch-comedy series on Netflix “I Think You Should Leave”.  On the documentary side, it recommends “Beyond the Bolex” available on Kanopy.  I also keep finding interesting views as a HotDocs member (check out https://hotdocs.ca/p/hd-home). Recently I watched the 2007 doc Billy the Kid (https://billythekid.oscilloscope.net/) which centres on a somewhat geeky 15-year old adolescent who lives with his single mom, a dog and a cat in the small town of Lisbon Falls, Maine. He’s very chatty and is shown hanging out with a shy first girlfriend.  So completely natural, as if ingenuously oblivious to the camera’s presence, this simple observational slice of real life is remarkably engaging.

As well, I have started to catch up on the four seasons (24 episodes) of Netflix’s French drama series Call My Agent! (A+, the French title is Dix Pour Cent, 10%) which delights in the foibles of a Parisian talent agency “ASK” (Agence Samuel Kerr, though the founding owner croaks in the first episode; replaced by Hicham Janowski, a hotshot boss with hair pulled back in a stylish man bun) representing people involved in the film business.  A number of well-known French actors appear as themselves.  As a spoofy parody it’s great fun and highly recommended.

Netflix has also added a couple of horror movies to be watched at your own risk.  From France 2020 comes The Swarm (La Nuée, B-) directed by Just Philippot.  The main character Virginie (Suliane Brakim), a single mom of two children, is raising locusts as a food source (apparently high in protein and quite tasty when roasted).  Things go off the rails when they turn into a brooding menace (a bad omen is when a cute white pet goat gets turned into a bloody mess). If you don’t already have a phobia of creepy-crawly insects this may give you one. Peter Winther directs Aftermath (U.S. 2021, C+) which starts with a bloody scene as a young couple and their dog move into a house where a murder-suicide took place.  No wonder it was a bargain …talk about the perils of home ownership!  Anyway, if the house is not actually possessed by evil spirits some very bad things start happening.  In a panic the cops get called to investigate, but of course never find anything amiss. Despite some decent forebodings and scares this is TV movie territory.

Back to Apple TV+ streaming for one of the best movies I’ve seen this year that I had to watch as soon as it became available on August 13.

CODA (U.S./France/Canada 2021) A+

Apple paid a record US$25 million to acquire this remarkable first feature by writer-director Sian Heder (inspired by the 2014 French drama La Famille Bélier) that wowed audiences and critics at Sundance (grand jury prize, audience award, directing prize, and special jury award for ensemble performance).  Set in the Massachusetts coastal community of Gloucester, Massachusetts-born Heder both captures the local ambience and has the deaf characters all played by deaf actors (with subtitles for the signing).   CODA (“child of deaf adults”) has high-school senior Ruby Rossi (an excellent Emilia Jones) as the only hearing person in her family of four—dad Frank (Troy Kotsur), mom Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant).  Frank and Leo operate a fishing trawler.  Ruby interprets for them on board and in business matters, including a movement to form a co-op to get better prices for their catch.  The family can only imagine how their Ruby is blessed with a fine singing voice (pushed by a teacher Mr. V. played by Eugenio Derbez).  Ruby is also sweet on fellow student and musical partner Miles (Irish actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo who was so engaging in 2016’s Sing Street).  Ruby’s audition for admittance to a prestigious music school, singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, is a truly magical moment.   Although Ruby’s aspirations sometimes clash with the exigencies of the family fishing enterprise, there’s no doubting either their close bond or her talent.  It’s a compelling story that is both grounded and heartwarming in the best possible way.

***

Beyond the plethora of streaming choices available online 24/7, I am very happy to see theatres reopening on a limited basis.   The following feature titles were all viewed on the big screen.

The Father (UK/France 2020, in theatres)  A+

This highly-praised drama, directed by Florian Zeller adapting his own acclaimed stage play, premiered at the Sundance festival over 18 months ago.  Octogenarian Anthony Hopkins received a best actor Oscar for his phenomenal performance as the father of the title, also named Anthony, who is showing signs of dementia.  In denial, Anthony has driven away a succession of carers and argues with his dutiful daughter Anne (another strong sensitive performance by Olivia Colman) when she visits.  “I don’t need anyone”, he insists, but protests when she tells him she has met a man and is going to Paris to live with him.  Anthony keeps losing things and wondering if he is in his own flat.  Caring staff are warned that “he has his ways”.  Indeed he maintains a fiercely independent streak, determined to keep living in his own place.  The narrative takes place entirely in that space.  But Zeller makes subtle changes in those surroundings as well as using several different actors for the roles of the new caregiver and Anne’s husband as visual markers of the memory loss affecting Anthony’s confused state of mind.  Such devices convey a sense of Anthony’s increasing disorientation. With rates of dementia rising, this difficult situation involving aging parents will become more common.  As a screen version it’s not to be missed.

Hope (Norway/Sweden/Denmark 2020)  A

This award-winning drama from writer-director Maria Sødahl premiered several years ago at the 2019 Toronto film festival.  The semi-autobiographical narrative centres on what happens to an artistic couple—Tomas (Stellan Skarsgård) and Anja (Andrea Bræn Hovig)—when she is diagnosed with an incurable metastasized cancerous brain tumour and an edema.  She faces surgery to remove it but it’s unclear how much this will prolong life.  Under that evident emotional strain, the family dynamics are sensitively portrayed.  The couple have three young children, 16 and under, and Tomas has three children from a previous marriage.  The setting of what should be a festive season—Christmastime to New Year’s—adds to the strain of Anja’s dire diagnosis.  How would be deal with such a diagnosis if it happened to us or to a loved one?  The film focuses on interpersonal relationships and by closing with the moment of surgery leaves the future uncertain.  Indeed, as the title suggests, under the circumstances hope is all there is.

Stillwater (U.S. 2021, https://www.focusfeatures.com/stillwater/) B+

The latest from director and co-writer Tom McCarthy (Spotlight) stars Matt Damon as Bill Baker, an oil and construction worker of Stillwater, Oklahoma (hence the title)—the opening scene shows him cleaning up after a tornado—who finds himself out of his element in the south of France where his daughter Alison (a grown-up Abigail Breslin) is serving time for the murder of a roommate with whom she was in a lesbian relationship.  [The scenario suggests a parallel to the infamous case of Amanda Knox.  For more comment see: https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2021/08/stillwater-is-a-mainstream-film-that-defies-convention/619624/.]

Although widower dad and daughter have been estranged for years, he believes in her protestations of innocence and wants to help get the case reopened.  Sporting a goatee beard, ball cap and jeans, with an American eagle and skull tattoo, Bill could be a caricature of a middle-aged white guy red-state Trump voter (though he explains that he can’t vote because of an arrest record).  He’s had a drinking problem and describes himself as a “f___ up”. He’s also a unilingual anglophone but finds a fortunate friend in Virginie (Camille Cottin, a regular on Call My Agent!), a single mom and theatre actress with a delightful young daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud).  They even move in together.  Bill has an ailing mother at home and can’t afford the fee demanded by a private investigator.  But he is somehow able to stay in Marseille for months while searching for a “Hakim” to get a DNA sample after Alison names him as the real culprit in the murder.  This adds an element of anti-Arab and anti-immigrant racism to the proceedings. After spotting the “Arab kid” at raucous football match Bill tracks him down and holds him in a basement. The troubled waters keep getting deeper, not to mention a suicide attempt.  And the happy American homecoming is belied by strong hints that dad and daughter may share a violent streak.   Although you could drive a truck through the holes in the narrative, Damon’s gruff believable performance is what grounds the movie. For Bill, being described as “so American” is a compliment not an accusation.  

Annette (France/U.S./Mexico/Germany/Japan/Switzerland/Belgium 2021) C?

The wild and crazy films of Leos Carax demand a special taste, one that I lack.  Apparently Amazon lavished over $15 million on this outlandish production (now on Prime Video despite Carax complaining that “streaming is hell”).  Even a positive review on The Guardian called it a “barking mad fantasia” (more like a nightmare). The movie opened the Cannes film festival where Carax was awarded the best director prize.  What cinematic koolaid were they drinking?    The main character Henry McHenry is played by a longhaired Adam Driver who early on delivers a loopy standup stage performance (the show is called “the Ape of God”) clad in a bathrobe and mooning the audience on the way out.  He forms a showbiz couple with singer Anne played by Marion Cotillard resulting in several racy scenes. (However, she’s mostly absent from the second half when an orchestra conductor played by Simon Helberg gets more screen time.)  At intervals the performers on screen break into song as if in a loony tunes opera. That includes during Anne giving birth to “baby Annette”, an infant more doll-like puppet than human. (Words and music are provided by the Sparks Brothers—Ron and Russell Mael—who I had never heard of before. Seems they are the subject of a new documentary by Edgar Wright.)  Annette becomes an excuse for 140 minutes of loving to death in which weirdness and bizarre taste carry on nonstop.  The closer has Henry, who’s been imprisoned, exclaiming “Stop watching me!”.  Better yet, don’t watch at all.    Be warned that my question-mark “C” rating is for sheer creative audacity and sensory assault.

The Green Knight (Ireland/Canada/U.S./UK 2021) B+

The latest from much-admired American indie filmmaker David Lowery (A Ghost Story), delayed over a year due to the pandemic, is getting mostly rave reviews including a lengthy appreciation from Anthony Lane of The New Yorker.  Claiming to be “a filmed adaptation of the chivalric romance by anonymous”, the inspiration is the 14th century English poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” which makes a Christmastime game of decapitation. The court of King Arthur and his Queen, both wearing odd metal crowns with a halo attached at the back, is seated in a semi-circle if not a round table when enters the green knight on a steed.  His tree-bark visage conjures up the image of an “Ent” from “Lord of the Rings” (or perhaps a grownup greenwashed “groot” from Guardians of the Galaxy”?).  Sir Gawain (well played by a shaggy-haired bearded Dev Patel) rises to the challenge and lops off his head, which the knight picks up and exits.  There’s to be a return engagement a year hence. Gawain, with a sorceress mother and a lover (played by Alicia Vikander), journeys through serial chapters, prefaced by intertitles in an antique font, accompanied by a dirge-like score, and sometimes joined by a fox.  A few brief puppet-show snippets also punctuate the action of Gawain’s (mis)adventures that include being waylaid and tied up in a forest, passed by looming giant figures, and encountering a lord played by Joel Edgerton.  This is all prelude to the “off with your head” reunion with the green knight at the green chapel.  Sir Gawain in wonderland? I’m not sure what possessed Lowery to tackle such a strange tale. That said, he excels at dimly-lit spooky atmospherics which shows in the quite wondrous production design.  After a long list of end credits to same there’s a brief shot of a little girl playing with one of those halo-crowns.   Does it mean anything … who knows?

Nine Days (U.S. 2020, https://www.sonyclassics.com/film/ninedays) B

It’s been over 18 months since this strange drama premiered at Sundance 2020 where it won a screenwriting award.  A first feature by writer-director Edson Oda it takes place in an imaginary not-alive zone where “souls” are interviewed for a chance at life.  The interviewer, who was once alive, is a black man Will (Winston Duke) who monitors and takes notes on human subjects via a bank of vintage television screens and through VHS tapes, creating a weird atmosphere both retro and as oddly fantastical as a bad dream. Will also has an assistant played by Benedict Wong.  When one of his subjects Amanda, a violinist, dies in a car crash an opening is created for a replacement to be selected.  The candidates, played by adult men and women, are subjected to a nine-day process that includes extreme situational test questions. Those who fail get to choose an experiential moment as a sort of consolation prize before being returned to the void. Zazie Beetz plays the questioning “soul” who succeeds the best, leading to a closing crescendo of crazy.  Why nine days?  After all, God needed fewer to create the universe and could still have one to rest.  The movie demands you accept its baffling and bizarre concept on faith, at least enough to follow through a narrative that’s nuttier than a fruitcake. Don’t expect to find answers on this journey.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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