Netflix is becoming one of the better producers of film and television and have worked with the Coen brothers to produce a fascinating film that is really a tribute to the American tradition of Westerns. In a series of short films it looks at the Western with humour and respect. Whether or not you are a fan of Westerns you will be hooked by the first episode in the film called The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. It is a brilliant take off of the singing cowboy. It hooked me and while the following episodes are up and down in quality and are all very different from one another and I have already re-watched it a few times. The other good thing about the film is that it can be watched in doses since each episode stands on its own. The film is also all about the script which is excellent and the acting is good but not the reason to see this movie. So the final word from me is that this movie is a refreshing distraction and worth seeing – especially part one. It has received critical praise (8/10 on Rotten Tomatoes) but because of its format I think many were not sure about how to rank it. Its too bad some of the segments could not be nominated in the category of Live Action Shorts. However, it has received a nomination for Best Song, Screenplay and Costumes. You can find “When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” on YouTube – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K91etXNIkaY
Have a listen but remember that this song is the conclusion of the first episode and needs context so take the time to watch Part 1: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
I was intrigued by this film from the day it was released. The Bush/Cheney rule in the US rivals that of Donald Trump for its outrageous power grabs and one-man rule. Unfortunately, that one-man rule was not the president but the vice-president operating in the background. Cheney built a cabinet of warmongers and ultra right-wing economists. That government built the ground on which Trump was elected and a host of right-wing senators and congress persons. Even the Democrats lean right, and Obama was constrained and influenced by the right. That rant out of the way I turn now to the film itself. Right at the start the film offers a proviso. The filmmakers point out in text that for anyone to know everything that really happened in the years leading up to Cheney’s rule is impossible, but nonetheless they “tried their fucking best”. The film is interesting particularly for politics junkies. We see connections to Donald Rumsfeld, Anthony Scalia and others that might not be immediately obvious to everyone. It also shows how more moderate people like Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell were manipulated. The problem with the film is that the director and writers seem not to be sure if they were making a dramatic film or a documentary and it is at least 40 minutes longer than it needs to be as dramatic elements of no real relevance are inserted including a bizarre scene of fake Shakespearean dialogue between Cheney and his wife. All that aside the movie is interesting and involving and offers insight into those years.
Of course, in the current tradition of political correctness
the film, like Green Book and others has come under criticism for not being an
accurate historical portrait. I hate using the “political correctness” thing
because I support being politically correct in many circumstances but I am not
sure I am okay with it being used in these cases. The unfortunate personal
actions of people like Tom Cruise, Kevin Spacey, and the political antics of
Clint Eastwood, Jon Voight, and Dennis Hopper doesn’t mean I will stop watching
Mission Impossible, The Usual Suspects, Dirty Harry, Midnight Cowboy, or Easy
Rider. Likewise Vice and Green Book may not accurately reflect the real events
they portray but the films themselves are good and should be judged on their merits
as works of art. Many will disagree but I needed to get that off my chest.
if you are a political junkie you will definitely like this movie and there is
no question that the performances of the ensemble cast of Cristian Bale, Sam
Rockwell, Amy Adams and Steve Carrell are superb and worthy of the nominations they
have received. If you aren’t as intrigued with politics as many others you will
find it too long and somewhat boring. I stand on the border – I was interested
but wanted to fast forward through some of the film. Rotten Tomatoes gives it
6.7/10 for critical response and a 3.1/5 audience rating. Hmmm… an excellent mediocre
I am a big Spike Lee fan and BlacKkKlansman did not disappoint.
This film joins several other movies from 2018 and 2017 that look at being
black in America. Set in different eras and touching genres like horror and sci-fi,
this film, Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk, Sorry to Bother You and Get
Out are all worth seeing and all deserve awards although Sorry To Bother You has
yet to get the recognition it deserved. BlacKkKlansman is based on the true story
of the first black detective to join a Colorado police department. Coinciding
with his appointment, the Ku Klux Klan attempts to open a chapter in the town
and sanitize its profile. Our hero played by John David Washington (son of Denzel),
decides to take them down and using the phone (and his white voice) convinces
the Klan to invite him as a member. That done he needs to find someone white to
sit in for him. Enter Adam Driver a fellow detective who takes on the role. One
twist is that Driver’s character is Jewish and no more welcome than Washington
would be if exposed. The story combines comedy and thriller to tell a very entertaining
story that at the same time does not shirk from the racism in the Klan but also
in the police department. Driver and Washington are excellent although Washington
failed to get an acting nomination from the Academy. He did get one from the
Golden Globes however. Also six Academy Award nominations for 2018 and well
deserved. An entertaining and eye-opening film.
Cuarón’s career to date would not have led me to predict
a film like Roma. He is known for directing Gravity, a sci-fi space drama, Children
of Men, a sci-fi story of a dystopic future and one of the Harry Potter films. This
autobiographical story of growing up in Mexico City is definitely a step in a
new direction for him, simple, straightforward, and no special effects. Like much
of his work in the past this film has won critical praise and now 10 Academy
Award nominations including best foreign language film and best picture. While
I liked the movie, I confess I fail to see the enthusiasm. We are taken into
the day to day life of a family in transition and have insight into the
relationship between the kids, mother, and the servants who are part of the family
in important ways. The film is a tribute to the women who raised him and a beautiful
portrait of a family’s life in the 1970’s. The cinematography is very good, and
I confess I enjoyed it being in black and white, but ten nominations is, I
think, over the top. While I am sceptical of all the nominations I do think
this is a film worth seeing and to be fair I have liked many of his earlier but
very different films. Cuarón is a talented director with a varied and top flight works
so have a look but despite all the nominations I suspect it will not clean up.
It’s a unique thing that James Baldwin was able to do and that Barry Jenkins was able to pull off in terms of having you feel broken yet so full at the same time by the end of the film. — Stephan James.
This quote from the
male lead of If Beale Street Could Talk helped me understand my own feelings
after leaving this film. Beale Street is based on a novel by James Baldwin and
is a love story that happens in the context of racism in New York City. The
protagonists are a young couple who grow up together, fall in love and have a
child together. The pregnancy occurs while the young man is falsely accused of
rape and awaits trial in prison. During the film we see flashbacks to their childhood,
their growing relationship, the struggles within their families, and their own
struggles to find work and a place to live while planning a life together. The
man’s arrest and imprisonment and the efforts to free him are, however, the
major narrative. As I watched I wondered how it would all end. Would there be a
Hollywood ending with him being freed and justice achieved? Would he die in
prison from suicide or murder? Would he become hardened by his experience and
become something his lover could no longer love? In the end none of these
happen but somehow I did not leave the film depressed but certainly angry at
what happened to them and at the same time hopeful and relieved at the ability
of some people at least to overcome or rather, live with injustice because of
what they share with one another. Not sure if that will explain the film or not
but James’ quote was very helpful to me in resolving how I felt.
The film is worthy of the praise it has received. The acting is OSCAR worthy and the cinematography and writing of equal quality. I read some of James Baldwin in university but was, I think, too young to appreciate its importance. My first recent re-introduction was to Baldwin was the excellent documentary about his life and contributions – I Am Not Your Negro, which I will re-watch soon and I encourage everyone to see. If you go to see this film, and I recommend you do, it will help you come to understand how victims of racism survive the context within which they are living. The experience of living within a racist society is something that can be hard to understand particularly for those of us who have grown up as part of the white middle class. Baldwin and Jenkins have told a story that reaches across that divide and educates without pulling punches but also without anger or hate and with great power. An excellent film.
First Man, the story of Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon, has been touted as one of the best films at the festival this year and worthy of the People’s Choice Award. It was the last film of the week for me and to be honest one of the most disappointing. In what could have been a celebration of one of the great engineering and scientific achievements of the 20th Century was instead one of the most pedantic overly long tedious films of the year. Ryan Gosling was the draw having been a big star of Chazelle’s big hit La La Land. (another film I thought was overrated). The film is two and half hours long and I would guess that at least 30 minutes of the film was spent with a closeup of Gosling’s face in a helmet shaking as he entered or left the atmosphere in a high-altitude jet, Gemini flight, training flight or ultimately the Apollo mission. Boring and not necessary. The film attempts to help us understand not only the challenges of the Apollo mission but also the human side of Armstrong and his family as he applies for the astronaut program, through the Gemini series of flights, to his ultimate recruitment to captain Apollo 11. Gosling is wooden in the role. Although this may be true of Armstrong himself, it does not make for drama or tension. I did not find the family tension real, or the relationship among the astronauts themselves which is another focus. My guess is that Chazelle just tried to do too much and should have been more focussed. I was bored throughout and was greatly relieved when the moon landing proved to be the end of the film. I feared we would be submitted to several more scenes of Gosling’s shaking face as the lander took off from the moon, docked with the Apollo capsule, re-entered the earth’s atmosphere and landed in the ocean. Thank God we were spared all that.
I will confess that my reaction may be due in part to the fact that I watched these events happen in real time in the 60’s and many in the audience were too young or not born when all this happened. The other aspect of the film is that it is supposedly about a great event in human history. While I must agree that it was a major scientific achievement it was really all about politics. The US was humiliated that the USSR was way ahead in the space race and so they decided to fund the effort. I would remind everyone that since the moon landings 50 years ago there has been no further human outreach into space except for the international space station. Going to Mars is still decades off. So much for the human desire for exploration. If you want to watch films about the US Space program that have something more to offer I would suggest you avoid First Man and instead watch Hidden Figures or Apollo 13 both of which are far far superior to this one.
Mike Leigh’s last film – Mr. Turner – about English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner, played by Timothy Spall was a spectacular visual experience without the use of animation or CGI and Peterloo continues and I think goes one better than Mr. Turner. Peterloo is a dramatic look at one of the most important events in the establishment of labour rights, women’s suffrage and democratic reform in English history. In 1819 a gathering of workers, women and commoners met in Manchester at St. Peter’s Field. Nearly 100,000 people came to hear a speech from a parliamentary reformer and start a movement to address the repression of the time. The landowners and factory owners were terrified and called in the army. The result was a horrendous massacre. The press of the time named the event Peterloo after the recent battle of Waterloo. Although the immediate outcome was greater repression, ultimately major reforms came forward to address the demands of the people. Apparently, the Manchester Guardian, still a left-wing newspaper was founded as a result of the massacre.
The movie is a stunning portrayal of the repression of the time and the attitudes of those who were the oppressors. The tension of the film evolves slowly as we await the inevitable outcome. Some of the scenes reminded me of Dutch Master paintings with exquisite lighting and staging. Throughout the film Leigh’s brilliant visual sense is exhibited. The script and acting is also excellent. If I had a complaint it was length at 2.5 hours but to determine which scenes might be cut would be hard to be honest. While watching the film I felt that this was not just an historical record but a statement about today. One of the most disturbing scenes in the film is a textile factory where workers attend to automated weaving machines. As we learn more about how Amazon warehouse workers are treated or how underpaid Walmart workers are, or how Uber drivers are treated as contract workers to save having to provide health benefits or job security it was hard not see the similarities. The violent repression is not so far away should these workers decide to revolt. Definitely one of the best films of my week with a message for our modern times.
Red Joan is a film based on a book about a woman, Melita Norwood who, during and shortly after World War II was involved as a spy for the USSR. Norwood was a physicist who became involved in research to develop the atom bomb. The US was not the only country involved. Research was being done by the Nazis, the Russians and even Canadians. Stanley was also a communist sympathizer and acted as one of the longest serving spies for the USSR ultimately giving the Russians critical information that allowed them to be the second country to develop the bomb after the US. She was only uncovered some 50 years later when she was in her 80’s. Although she was arrested, she was never prosecuted largely because of her age and the time that had passed since the time of her actions.
For the purposes of the film, Melita Norwood’s name is changed to Joan Stanley, as the director was adapting the true story with a somewhat different take on the motives driving the characters. I was keen to see this film mostly because of Judy Dench who did not disappoint but the film was not the story I was expecting. While based on the book and the true events the director and writer changed it in important ways. We follow Stanley’s arrest and interrogation and as she describes her actions we are taken back to the 40’s to see how she is recruited to work on the bomb and later decides to provide information to Russian agents. The acting is competent (except for Dench, who is great as usual) and the costumes and recreation of wartime England are very well done but the story was pretty much destroyed. In the Q and A following the film we learn that Stanley/Norwood was actually a true and committed member of the communist party and supporter of Stalinist Russia. She betrayed her country out of this commitment. In the movie however they do acknowledge her connection to Russian agents, but she is portrayed as anti-communist and her actions are driven more by her desire for peace. She is convinced that the US use of the bomb to end the war with Japan unbalances the world and would lead to a nuclear holocaust. She thought it was necessary for the Russians to have the bomb as well to ensure no one ever used the bomb. Not a very convincing argument and it trivialized what might have been a interesting exploration of why people like Stanley/Norwood were convinced to support Russia and communism of the time. She was not alone in making that commitment either in the UK or the US and that seems an opportunity missed by the director. I recommend the movie to all Judy Dench fans but beyond that, wait for it to appear on Netflix.
This was the best movie of the week and I do not expect it to be surpassed in the remaining days. I was with the second audience to see the film and apparently the most enthusiastic. We were at the Elgin, so a huge crowd, and as the director and cast came on stage for a Q and A after the final credits they received a standing ovation that lasted it seemed at least 5 minutes. They were clearly stunned and did not know how to respond when we just kept clapping and cheering. So why?, I hear you ask.
The film is a classic road trip film but based on real events. A black jazz pianist (and very well to do gentleman) from New York City, Dr. Don Shirley, decides to take his trio on a tour through the southern US in 1964 at a time when segregation and Jim Crow laws and customs were still very much in place. He knew he was going into difficult places so he decides to hire a driver/protector to accompany him on the 8 week trip. Enter Viggo Mortensen in maybe his best acting performance ever. Mortensen plays a third generation Italian New Yorker, working class background, who has recently been laid off from his job as a bouncer for the Copacabana Club which is undergoing “renovations” following a “fire”. The mob is a part of Mortensen’s community shall we say. Mortensen’s character is also not exactly comfortable with those not of Italian extraction shall we say although he is clearly at heart a good guy. He takes the job a bit reluctantly because he needs the money. The two leave in a car rented by Shirley’s recording studio and we are taken through the 8 week trip during which we learn much about Don Shirley’s and Mortensen’s characters as they slowly bond into good friends. The film is funny, heart warming, does not shy away from the racism of the time and is brilliantly scripted and acted. I can’t say too much more except to tell you this movie comes out in November, is headed to the Oscars and if Viggo doesn’t get a nomination and even a Best Acting Oscar there is no justice in the world. The title is from an actual guide for black travelers in the deep south. It was called The Green Book and listed all the hotels and restaurants where blacks were allowed to eat and sleep while in the south.
Peter Farelly, the director is maybe best known as the director of Dumb and Dumber among other comic classics but this film goes far beyond his other work. The actors all praised his talents and dedication to the film. During the Q and A the actors were asked to tell stories about their time working on the film and how they all came to bond with each other as well. There were several good stories but I liked best the one told by Mahershala Ali who plays Don Shirley. One day while filming at one of the Green Book hotels that still exists, an elderly black man who was watching and lived across the street asked about the film. When he learned it was about Don Shirley he got excited and told them he had lived there for decades and remembered that not only did Don Shirley stay there but also Little Richard, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles and Sam Cooke among many others. He knew them all it seems and partied with them. Ali say it lent a reality for him as to what the film was about, how sad those times were and how accurate this film was in documenting that time.
I want Oscar nominations for the writing, the director, Viggo and Ali, and for the music. I did not know Don Shirley’s music and went home to listen to some more. It is superb jazz. The film has a great music score and features many examples including a great set in a blues bar near the end of the film. Look him up. See the film.
After a series of films with political overtones it was really relaxing to see this one that just tells a very nice story about three old guys robbing banks. That is a bit unfair. The cast is great with Robert Redford, Danny Glover and Tom Waits as the Over the Hill Gang, Sissey Spacek as the love interest and Casey Affleck as the cop who is reluctantly chasing them down. Not really a comedy and not really a romance but just a nice telling of a mostly true story of life long bank robber Forrest Tucker and his last run after escaping San Quentin prison. The story is understated, no violence, great subtle acting and really relaxing. Not sure I can say a great deal more about it. I suspect it will not show up at the Academy Awards but this is not a reason for you not to track it down when it is released at the end of the September. With all the evil news we deal with every day it seems take an hour and a half to just calm down with Redford and gang.