With Christmas comes the Christmas movies. These film opne this week as well as on Christmas Day. Recommned is 1917, my favourite BEST film of 2019.
1917 (UK/USA 2019) ***** Top 10
Directed by Sam Mendes
Clearly the best film I have seen in 2019 - hands down - in terms of action, cinematography, direction, performances an art direction. There is no greater pleasure than watching an almost perfect piece and 1917 is a minor masterpiece.
The story or film is based on, according to the closing credits to stories told by Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes. It is assumed that these stories were told to director Sam Mendes (SKYFALL, ROAD TO PERDITION, Oscar for Best Picture: AMERICAN BEAUTY) as grandfather to grandson. The situation is that Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are two Lance Corporals – and messengers. At the height of the First World War during Spring 1917 in northern France, the two young British soldiers (looking very much like boys enlisted before age, as seen in last year’s riveting documentary THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD by Peter Jackson, an excellent companion piece to this film) are given a seemingly impossible mission to deliver a message from a general (Colin Firth) which will warn of an ambush during one of the skirmishes soon after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line during Operation Alberich. They race against time, crossing enemy territory to deliver the warning and keep a British battalion of 1,600 men, which includes Blake's own brother, from walking into a deadly trap. The pair must give their all to accomplish their mission by surviving the war to end all wars.
Director Mendes and writer Krysty Wilson-Cairns up the angst with Schofiled damaging his hand wth barbed wire at the start of their mission. In less than 15 minutes, an unexpected explosion (one that will surely cause many an audience to literally jump out of their seats) almost leaves him dead buried under a huge pile of rubble while the shaft they are in begin to collapse under more explosions. The element of surprise (or shock) is ever present, so do not expect any periods of calm.
The most amazing achievement is the film’s cinematography by Richard Deakens. The beginning sequence where the two make their way along the trenches is done in seems to be one long take, marvellously and miraculously executed in what is cinematic wonder and grace. Apparently the effect of the one continuously long take was achieved by both elaborate long shots and choreographed camera movements. The camera is always in front of the two running men, showing their expressions of fear and anxiety where the background reveal the horrid conditions of the trenches and the other soldiers. Another great feat is the crashing of a German bomber plane almost on top of the lance corporals. That segment marks not only the film’s best segment but the one that changes the whole course (the spoiler will not be disclosed in this review) of the story.
The horror of WWI is revealed in all its goriness from the dead bodies, the rats, mud, crows and bleak skies. It is a dystopian landscape that depicts the end of the world as seen by anyone on 1917 Northern France. The music by Thomas Newman is appropriately scored.
The film’s comes with a message as delivered by Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that hope can be a very dangerous thing. Ironically, the opposite of this message is delivered in another Christmas film, JUST MERCY.
63 UP (UK 2019) ****
Directed by Michael Apted
The UP series is a series of 9 documentaries that record the interviews of 14 different Brits from all walks of life starting at the age of 7 with 7 UP. Now, 55 years or so later, each has reached the ripe age of 63, hence the film title 63 UP.
For those who have not seen every one of the series, director Michael Apted (COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER, GORKY PARK), who directed almost the entire series provide flashbacks so that the audience can see what these subjects have said in the past. This series of documentaries is indeed an excellent thought experiment that showcases life - both for better or worse, as the subjects discuss they ambitions, achieved or not. The all important premise is the organizing statement of the series is “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man."
All except for one, who passed away from a born illness, all are living to this present day. And all but one refused to participate in 63 UP.
Apted’s doc (because of the flashbacks) run almost 2 and a half hours, but the viewing is well worth it.
The format of questions posed to each subject is similar and consists of questions like:
“How has marriage affected you in the past years?”
“Have you changed much?”
“What’s your opinion on Brexit?”
“What do you see in the future for now?
“What is your pressing concern?”
One can soon clearly see that the film’s wonder comes from the pleasure of surprises that come from each subject. Good to say, that each subject has fortunately been good people, and most are ordinary folk expect for one born into the higher class and one achieving his aim of being a solicitor. Yet, these two most fortunate believe in doing good. The solicitor aids the poorer countries like Bavaria while the higher class subject also believes in doing his share for charity. These two brings good feeling of warmth into the film.
The most emotional of the segments involve a girl called Lynn. She grew up in East London and has spent her life doing good- helping children beginning with the mobile children’s library. Despite her diligence, she keeps getting her funding cut off. In the film’s most emotional moment when director Apted asked her if it is all worth the trouble, she tearfully says:”It is all worth it!” When questioned about death, she displays a plaque saying” “Death is nothing at all.” Lynn also talks about loving her husband, first as a friend before getting married. Lynn is the one dead has passed away from a born illness. Another, Nick was diagnosed with cancer just before appearing on Apted’s camera.
Apted’s 35 UP passes like a breeze. The powerful film connects with the audience despite the subjects all being British.
The doc ends with the words: “These are Britain’s future.” A moving and effective documentary! My best bet is that there will be a 70 UP.
BOMBSHELL (USA 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Jay Roach
The film’s premise is simple enough that it can be stated in one line. Women previously sexually harassed by Fox News CEO Roger Ailes stand up and expose Ailes for his crime.
BOMBSHELL is a no-nonsense drama. It gets right to the crux the matter with little humour and with no side-stories. The film therefore turns out an uncomfortable and occasionally gut-wrenching watch (even if one is a male) but this is a story that needs to be told - for the women and others to stand up and make a difference so that what has happened in the past will never happen again.
The script by Charles Randolph details the pure hell the abused women have to go through to attack Ailes. “You must be prepared when Ailes summons everything and goes all out to destroy you,’ warn the lawyers taking up the case. The truth can be seen in how the career, family and personal life have been made a living hell.
While most of the characters in the film are real-life characters, the film clearly states at the start that a few fictional ones have been added to dramatize the events. One such character is a Fox worker, Kayla played by Margot Robbie, a victim who comes out to tell the story and cries why others have not done ether duty.
The single best performance belongs to Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly. Besides looking like a dead ringer for Megan Kelly, she totally inhabits the role. Those who have followed the news on the subject will likely find it difficult to distinguish between Theron and Kelly. This is how good Theron is and her performance has been praised widely by critics everywhere. The other best performance belongs to John Lithgow who is daring enough to put on prosthetics to look even more disgusting and older that Roger Ailes. Ailes has passed away sine the movie had been completed.
Director Jay Roach known especially for his Austin Powers movies tackles BOMBSHELL with dead seriousness and little humour. The one funniest punchline in the film is uttered by Roger Ailes when accused of sexually harassment of the women: “I never used to be this ugly.” Roach has made political films before, as in TRUMBO (blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo)and the TV dramas such as GAME CHANGE and RECOUNT.
The success of BOMBSHELL might see the emergence of the similar sexual harassment case of Harvey Weinstein, which would likely have juicier bits.
The film ends with titles informing certain events that have happened since the making of the film. The titles mention the settlement amounts the sexually harassed victims obtained which is just as much as Ailes’ severance pay after his resignation. The second statement is meant to anger the audience so that more can do their part to ensure sexual harassment and bullying stops, once and for all. BOMBSHELL is a film about real life events that needs to be told. The heroes in this movie are the victims who risk all to do all that needs to be done.
CATS (UK/USA 209) ***
Directed by Tom Hooper
At the promo screening before the start of CATS, the film adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webster’s stage musical, I told a fellow film critic colleague: “I am not really a cat person.” to which he replied; “they are not real cats…”. When the film finally begins, it is clear that my colleague is right, what appears on screen are humanoid cats, with CGI cat ears and tails that move like sexual organs.
CATS is a most-unexpected film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's beloved smash musical "Cats" and the poems from "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," by T.S. Eliot. Oscar winning Tom Hooper (The King's Speech, Les Misérables, The Danish Girl) directs with new technology to transform his cast members. The story concerns a tribe of cats called the Jellicles must decide yearly which one will ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back to a new Jellicle life.
Ever since the film’s trailer appeared in November, critics have had a field day panning the film, comparing it to a horrid fur ball with awful fur ball technology. Already, at the time of the film’s writing, the film has had 18% approval rating (by critics) on Rotten Tomatoes. Even if I loved the film, I would be hesitant to give it a glowing review. But I have to confess that I loved certain sections of the film.
There are several segments in the film that are imply magical and celebrates the Award Winning stage musical. One is the tap dancing number by the railroad cats. Another is the magical moment with the clever song the Magical Mister Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson). The latter segment is a magical segment that demands the audience to throw all logic to the wind and accept magic as it is for goodness to win and evil to be doomed.
The cat jokes (Cat got your tongue? and other cat jokes too embarrassing to mention) are too corny for a $90 million production. The film has a stellar cast with many British stars and talented dancers doing cameos. Judi Dench has quite the major role playing Deuteronomy while others like Ian McKellan, James Corden, Taylor Swift, Idris Elba, Rebel Wilson and others land a hand to make the magic happen. Swift and Webber collaborated with a new song “Beautiful Ghosts”, that has been nominated for a Golden Globe.
The plot is as nonsensical as the subplots that follow. These inefficiencies will give critics a field day. Deuteronomy is the old cat (Judi Dench) that has the difficult task of picking the chosen Jellicle with the villain of the piece, Macavity (Idris Elba) destroying all the competition so that he is the only one left, and hence the natural cat to be selected among the performing contestants.
Despite the low critics approval rating, the film received a loud applause at the end. It is doubtful if CATS will be a flop. It will make money just as Hooper’s LES MISERABLES did, and that was a much worse movie.
GOLDA (Israel/Germany 2019) ****
Directed by Sagi Bornstein, Udi Nir and Shani Rozanes
A documentary is often as riveting as its subject. GOLDA, the new documentary on former Israeli Prime Minister Mrs. Gold Meir is as riveting as a doc can be.
The world knows of Golda Meir, the first and only female Prime Minister of Israel as the Queen of the Jewish people. She had made history during her years in power, especially from 1969 to 1974. Myself, I only know what was generally printed in the newspaper headlines way back when, so this new documentary GOLDA serves to provide valuable insight on a notable historic figure.
In 1978, Golda Meir was interviewed by Israeli Television. After that, the cameras continued with her recording an intimate conversation. This doc boasts that this conversation was never aired and is to be seen in this documentary for the first time…..as so the titles at the beginning of the doc informs. It was not actually a nice or fair act for her, as she was fooled into speaking candidly. The audience sees Golda immediately lighting up a cigarette and then talking candidly about politics.
The doc also follow the route of most biographies. Some information (not too much ) is provided on Golda’s background as a child. Gold was born in the Ukraine and her father left the family for the U.S. Her mother and children, herself included joined him later. Her marriage is also briefly mentioned together with her two children before separation with her husband. “Men do not like smart girls.” This was the advice she was given while growing up.
But the most fascinating fact about Golda is her dedication and hard work for the Jewish people. This is what made the woman and also what helps makes the film memorable. Though riddled with cancer and ill health, she still accepted her post the Prime Minister at the the age of 71. Though she did not want the post of P.M. she eventually took it to finish a dream, as she says the film. Golda’s words: There was never a moment of peace snd quiet, on the battle or political front. She cam under criticism when she did not attend the mass funeral for the Israeli Olympic athletes. But the reason was her attending her sister’s funeral at the same time.
The directors have assembled s solid cast of interviewees. These include Uri Avneri, Zvi Zamir, the then Director of Mossad, a journalist, Professor Medin, Golda’s spokesman among others. Golda’s advice to Medin: “Do not lie.” The film is narrated by Udi Nir, a male that speaks aloud the thoughts of Golda.
The film crescendos into an exciting and movie climax (under the heading “Terrible Hours”) with Israel going into war with Syria and Egypt. This segment shows Golda’s strength, courage and restraint in times of war.
In one segment, Golda Meir says to the American people on her visit as Israel’s Head of State: “I am deeply moved by your words.” Her words can only be echoed by the audience of this documentary in the way the audience is moved by this great woman. As one subject says at the end of the film: “It is a sad and miserable story of a great woman.” GOLDA, the documentary makes its debut at the Ted Rogers Cinema on January the 3rd, right after the New Year.
A HIDDEN LIFE (USA/Germany 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Terrence Malick
Writer/director Terrence Malick wowed the film world, particularly film critics with his first two art features BADLANDS (1973) and DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) made 5 years apart. Two decades later, he made the war movie THE THIN RED LINE (1998) but it was The Cannes Palme d’Or Winner THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) than also win the TFCA (Toronto Film critics Association) Best Picture Award that made him the star director to be reckoned with. A HIDDEN LIFE based on true events is his new film described in the press notes as a historical drama. The film, which would be better described as a cinematic ode to peace depicts the life of Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer and devout Catholic who refused to fight for the Nazis in World War II.
Running close to 3 hours, nothing much happens in the film. This is the beauty and the characteristic of a Terrence Malick film which is a pleasure for critics and a major annoyance for commercial film goers. Malick’s best poetic film THE TREE OF LIFE was praised by critics everywhere but generally dismissed by the public.
The setting of A HIDDEN LIFE is 1939. Peasant farmer Franz Jägerstätter, born and bred in the small village of St. Radegund, is working his land when war (WWII) breaks out. Married to Franziska (Fani) (Valerie Pachner), the couple are important members of a tight-knit rural community. They live a simple life with the passing years marked by the arrival of the couple's three girls. Franz is called up to basic training and is away from his beloved wife and children for months. Eventually, when France surrenders and it seems the war might end soon, he is sent back from training. With his mother and sister-in-law Resie (Maria Simon), he and his wife farm the land and raise their children amid the mountains and valleys of upper Austria.
Malick devotes the first hours showing the idyllic life of the farming lifestyle in the countryside of Austria. The cinematography by Jörg Widmer displays the stunning landscape, something reminiscent from THE SOUND OF MUSIC. It is of no wonder that anyone would give up everything to live in a lace as serene as this. Malick, who has a degree in philosophy also loves nature. In THE THIN RED LINE, his love of nature is witnessed in a battle scene where one soldier lies in prone position aiming his rifle at the enemy. The soldier notices some vegetation on the ground and touches its leaf that closes. It is the touch-me-not-plant, its leaves that closes when being touched. There is much more of nature to be admired in A HIDDEN LIFE which is also what makes this movie.
The film takes a turn when Franz refuses to pledge allegiance to Hitler. His family is shunned by the local villagers and he ends up imprisoned. The last two hours depict the sufferings of Franz in prison and Fani at the farm. The film indeed becomes a hard watch.
A HIDDEN LIFE should be noted that it is a cinematic poem to be appreciated as an object of beauty despite its depiction of the harsh worldly conditions.
JUST MERCY (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton
Based on a true story - the titles proclaim at the start of the legal drama JUST MERCY. The film opens on Christmas Day so that it qualifies for the 2019 Academy Awards.
It tells the true story of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who with the help of young defense attorney Bryan Stevenson (Michael B.Jordan) appeals his murder conviction. The film is based on the memoir of the same name, written by Bryan Stevenson.
As expected, courtroom dramas about civil rights come with a whole lot of manipulation. Manipulation is recognizably present in JUST MERCY, though director Cretton’s credit, the manipulation is done with some restraint.
The audience needs to feel the horror of death by the electric chair in order to appreciate the trauma prisoners on death row are experiencing. Director Cretton denotes almost 15 minutes in this manipulative process. Bryan travels all the way down to witness the election by electrocution of one of his clients, Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan). The camera follows the prisoner as he is walked through the corridors, together with the soundtrack of the church hymn “The Old Rugged Cross.” The other prisoners in the jail clank their tin cups during the ‘ceremony’. The camera focuses on several witnesses like one of the guards, Bryan, and others. At least the audience is spared from the gory details of the execution. The audience only sees the reactions of the witnesses. But that is enough manipulation for 15 minutes. The other noticeable manipulative segment is the one whee the D.A. watches the proceedings of the case on TV with his family. The D.A. insists he is right, despite the McMillian’s innocence. The camera pans to the D.A.’s wife to show her disapproval of her husband’s actions and behaviour.
Courtroom dramas almost always require elaborate speeches and JUST MERCY delivers the speech during the McMillian’s crucial trial delivered by lawyer Bryan Stevenson. The speech will undoubtedly make many a critic shrug “humbug” under their breaths while audiences will likely lap it up. The message of justice and hope appears to come contradictory to the message i another Christmas film 1017 were hope is declared as a dangerous thing. In JUST MERCY, hope is declared as important as justice. Both films are correct and the concept of hope needs be taken in an appropriate context.
Of all the performances combined, that of Tim Blake Nelson as the convicted felon, Ralph Myers whose false testimony resulted in McMillian’s arrest and death sentence deserves mention. The photograph of Myers looks exactly as that portrayed by Nelson complete with the mouth twitches. Nelson gets my one or this year’s Best Supporting Actor.
JUST MERCY over dramatizes a real true life event in the typical Hollywood style. Those looking for a feel-good history lesson might enjoy this, but this film is no TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. The film’s most amusing segment is the townfolk insisting that the visiting lawyer, Bryan visit the Mockingbird museum when he is in the town, right where the proud citizen believe that are innocent of their bigoted ways.
Opens Christmas Day!
LITTLE WOMEN (USA 2019) ***1/2
Directed by Greta Gerwig
The latest adaptation of Luisa May Alcott’s 1968 novel of the same name. LITTLE WOMEN gets a different adaptation by Hollywood heavyweight female director Greta Gerwig. The film opens with the famous quote by author Alcott: “I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” Director Gerwig (FRANCES HA, LADY BIRD) who also penned the script, has taken the advice to heart in what might be her ‘happiest’ film. But her recurring theme of women in a dysfunctional relationships is still ever present.
LITTLE WOMEN explores the lives of the March sisters in 1860s New England, in the aftermath of the American Civil War. According to one of its producers, the new adaptation focuses more on the sisters' young adult lives, particularly after Meg, Jo, and Amy leave their family home. The story unfolds in a non-linear timeframe, jumping back and forth in time and focuses more on themes rather than narrative.
But the main difference to the story has Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) visiting the publisher at the beginning and end of the film. At first, she is trying to get any of her work published (miral tales do not sell, she is told) and at the end, she has more bargaining power with her characters in LITTLE WOMEN. This added bit to this adaptation stresses the difficulty in getting any work published, regardless of quality. And the publisher stresses that it has to have all the females married at the end. Yes, everyone loves a happy ending.
This is a rarer happier Gerwig film, which is perfect for the Christmas season. LITTLE WOMEN celebrates the independence, spirit and struggles of womenfolk, showing the timeliness of the female movement - then and now. The males in the story, no fault of Gerwig, turn out mainly hopeless relying on the women to set them straight.
The film benefits from a stellar cast, many of whom have earned Oscar nominations in the acting category, Ronan being one of them and Timothée Chalamet, delivering an even better performance than his nominated CALL ME BY YOUR NAME. Other talents include multiple Oscar Winner Meryl Streep as wealthy Aunt March with the attitude, Laura Dern as the mother and French actor/filmmaker Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer, Jo’s handsome suitor.
Director Gerwig has mounted a handsome period piece enhanced by the music of Oscar winning French composer Alexandre Desplat.
The timeless story stresses the strength of true love as in the case of Meg (Emma Watson) and John (James Norton). Love conquers all. The sibling rivalry and bonding are best illustrated with the relationship between Jo (Ronan) and Amy (Florence Pugh). They both share the love for the same man, Laurie (Chalamet).
The story is also not without humour. The humour is related to the story. “I want to write a story of my life,” Jo tells the publisher who responds: “Make the story short and spicy.” Gerwig’s film is occasionally spicy not feeling long at all.
As LITTLE WOMEN is a festive film, it seems only reasonable that Sony Pictures is opening the film on Christmas Day. LITTLE WOMEN makes an excellent choice for a Christmas movie.
THE SONG OF NAMES (Canada/Hungary/UK 2019) **
Directed by Francois Girard
French-Canadian director Francois Girard has got two box-office successes to his name, 32 FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD and THE RED VIOLIN. Girard is known to work well where his film includes the art of music. In THE SONG OF NAMES, the violin is once again the musical instrument in concern. Those two films aren’t half bad but they tend to be laborious at times. THE SONG OF NAMES is about an equally laborious journey of discovery - for the reason Dovidl, a violin prodigy has disappeared from the face of the planet.
The film is based on the Award Winning novel of the same name by Norman Lebrecht. The period piece is the type of film producer Robert Lantos loves to make and it is no surprise he came on board as a producer. The Song of Names of the film title refers to an actual song sung by the Jews - as one that is comprised of all the Jews that have perished at a concentration camp during the holocaust. This way, all the names can be remembered if committed to song. One of these is actually sung in the film.
The film begins with a 1951 London setting where a concert involving Dovidl is about to take place. The whole story unfolds from this concert incident in which Doidl is a no-show.
For reason of the story lasting almost a lifetime, it requires the two lead characters Dovidl Rapoport and Martin be played by 3 different sets of actors. Gerran Howell plays Martin and Jonah Hauer-King plays Dovidl between the ages of 17 and 21 while Misha Handley and Luke Doyle represent the boys between 9 and 13. As grown ups, the leads are Tim Roth and Clive Owen. The transition is difficult at best. After the audience has invested so much in the performances of the actors at one age, the audience is expected to feel the same emotions when the actors change. It does not help that Girard unfolds his tale in non-chronological order. The youngest actor Hardly and Doyle fare best. The film is the most interesting when the characters are boys, playing around, each attempting to prove that one is better than the other, or who is the boss. Tim Roth is passable as the adult Martin, able to suppress anger as well as to display it, when necessary. Clive Owen is not given much to do for his scenes are few, when he finally re-appears as the adult prodigy.
The production values of the film have to be commended. The air raid scenes at night in London are beautifully photographed offering the audience both the sense of beauty and danger.
THE SONG OF NAMES opening on Christmas Day ends up a handsomely mounted but ultimately dull affair. It feels like going for Christmas Service dressing up, meeting friends and enjoying the festive decorations but then having to listen to a boring Christmas sermon.
UNCUT GEMS (USA 2019) ***
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie
UNCUT GEMS is a crime drama with Adam Sandler in serious dramatic mode displaying a totally frantic and unstable character. Howard (Sandler) is a determined jewel dealer determined to prove himself a champion in his day-to-day life,. He idolizes his client list of famous athletes procured for him by his middleman, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield). Ever scheming with things always going awry, Howard intends to sell a mined chunk of rock full of embedded gems at auction — after it's shipped to him from Ethiopia inside a fish carcass. Josh and Benny Safdie’s film is often as annoying as the protagonist who has very few redeeming qualities. The main plot gets distracted. Howard’s mistress subplot could very well be cut out from the film with little effect. So can a few other things like his Jewish family gathering and a few other subplots all of which leads to the film’s over 2 hour running time. Initially annoying and deserving of good beating-up which Howard gets a couple of times, the audience eventually grows to love this dirtbag by the last reel - which shows how good an actor Adam Sandler can be.