Saturday, January 16, 2021

Seen in December 

Veni vidi vici. Image via The Movie Db.

Remember when we thought 2016 was a dumpster fire? Or was it 2017? Or maybe 2018? Whatever it was, 2020 outdid them all. Oh, I'm sure there were years like 1918 when so many died from influenza, or during The Great Depression and Dust Bowl, which tore asunder millions of lives. Even when The Dirty Thirties ended, fascists had taken over Europe and threw the world into war. Still, by any measure, 2020 was not a good year. A pandemic, mass unemployment, riots against police violence, violent riots against riots against violence, racial tensions, racists causing tension, conspiracy theorists running amok, unhinged politicians flinging muck, not to mention massive forest fires and a worsening climate crisis. Many people, myself among them, thought we needed Christmas more than ever. I sought out comfort via television. Not mentioned here are all the films I enjoyed before that I rewatched just for the comfort of it, like the Harry Potter films and countless Christmas specials. Here is what I saw worth writing down.

Coming To America
Before there was Black Panther there was another movie with a nearly all black cast. An Eddie Murphy comedy from 1988 about a wealthy African prince, Prince Akeem, who wishes to leave behind his arranged marriage and find true love in America. Specifically, he travels to Queens, New York to find his queen. I know this was made at the height of Murphy’s fame, yet I never really felt a need to see it. As a film, I’m not sure there’s as much here as its popularity would suggest but as a pop-culture moment, I get it. Appearing in small roles are some significant African American actors like James Earl Jones, John Amos, Eriq La Salle, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vondie Curtis-Hall, Samuel L. Jackson and other recognizable names and faces. My favourite moment is a call back to a previous Eddie Murphy film, when Prince Akeem hands a large wad of cash to Mortimer and Randolph Duke, now homeless on the streets of New York, who were ruined by another Murphy character in the film Trading Places.

Back to back camp. Image via The Movie Db.

Man With the Golden Gun
Roger Moore is British super spy, 007, James Bond, on an off-the-books mission to find, apprehend or kill the notorious assassin, Scaramanga, played gleefully by Christopher Lee. Moore was the Bond of my youth so I guess I should have enjoyed the nostalgia factor but in reality I find this series of Bond films too campy. Roger Moore is a great actor but I always felt this 70s version of Bond in polyester leisure suits, he seemed more like a concierge about to lead us to our table rather than someone ready to fight international criminals. 

The Life Ahead
Sophia Loren plays Rosa, an aging Holocaust survivor and prostitute whose only income seems to be caring for the children of other sex workers. Added to the two kids she’s already taking care of is Momo. Momo is brought to Rosa by a elderly doctor who also cares for a variety of street kids. The doctor sees Momo slipping into a criminal life on the street and recognizes the silver candlesticks he’s stolen as Rosa’s. He brings Momo to Rosa to return the stolen goods and apologize, he also thinks maybe Rosa is the real caretaker Momo needs. Momo is a Senegalese Muslim refugee who has lost his family, his faith and any remnants of his culture and as a black kid in an Italian city he stands out as different. Rosa introduces Momo to a Muslim shopkeeper hoping for him to give the kid a gentle introduction to his own faith and culture. Rosa has her own troubles including the trauma from her past and growing dementia. In spite of his own self-interests and independence, Momo sees that the old woman needs his help. Essentially these two need each other, especially emotionally. This interdependence is integral to the human experience, right? That’s what Momo learns through a painful transition from a street kid fighting for every inch, to a person who learns to find himself through his connection to others.

Howl’s Moving Castle
Another fantastical animated film from Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki (based on a novel of the same name). The story, as always, is both simple and highly convoluted. Sophie is a beautiful, meek but happy young woman who has a run in with a witch who turns her into an old woman. Sophie seeks out the powerful and feared wizard, Howl, to reverse the curse. Along the way she discovers her confidence and the difficulties and joys of being elderly. Like so many Miyazaki films, the heroine celebrates the passion and idealism of youth and the purity and sweetness of true love. She learns to respect and appreciate her elders, magic and the beauty of the world. The background for all of this is  an incredibly imagined world of Steampunk technology and the simple pleasures of making and tending a fire to make a cup of tea. 

The Secret World of Arietty. Image via The Movie Db.

The Secret World of Arietty
This animated film is based on the classic book The Borrowers, about tiny people who live in our homes borrowing from the world of the big people to survive. Seeing tiny people repurposing big people stuff is enchanting enough but this Studio Ghibli film brings even more magic to this lovely little tale. In the Studio Ghibli version, Arietty is the only child of a family of borrowers and she is champing at the bit to explore the big (very big) wide world. In one her expeditions to the garden of the humans she meets a young but ill boy, Shō. This mutual discovery leads to a situation that forces the borrower family to relocate. Shō aids their move and tries to protect their existence from some humans who want to capture them. The recurring themes of Studio Ghibli films are all on display here as Arietty’s independence and confidence grows and her friendship with a kind human boy (and even a cat) is the purist kind of love or something like that. It’s sweet and pure and beautiful.

Mando and friends. Yes, even a Mandalorian can have friends. Image via The Movie Db.

The Mandalorian S02
Season 2 of this Star Wars series does not disappoint. Creator and show runner, Jon Favreau is here to serve all the Star Wars super fans as the Mandalorian of the title continues his quest to reunite his young charge, the charismatic “Baby Yoda”, with others of his kind. Along the way he meets Boba Fett, who survived his fate from The Return of the Jedi, fan favourite Jedi knight, Ahsoka Tano (from The Clone Wars series), played by Rosario Dawson and again, Moff Gideon, played by Giancarlo Esposito. The climax of the season marks a highlight of the show with a return of one of the greatest Jedis of all (sorry, no spoilers here).

All is Bright
The story of two Quebecers who head to New York City to make a small fortune in the three to four weeks before Christmas by selling over-priced trees to New Yorkers. With Paul Giamatti and Paul Rudd, curiously cast cast as the Quebecers in question, and Sally Hawkins as a Ukrainian servant (or Polish? Who knows?) this should have been a much better movie but this is not a good film. To call it “uneven” is being polite. This movie should be taught in film school for all the wrong choices the director and editors made to work against an average script and actors who are clearly left adrift. The director, Phil Morrison is known for his previously well received indie movie, Junebug, but nothing goes right in this film which is a small, boring disaster.

Castle in the Sky
OK, even the most concise recap of this film is a novella, but here goes. A young girl, Sheeta, has a crystal given to her by her grandmother, which is the key to a giant floating castle. It turns out that she and some kind of “government minister” are two descendants of a noble family who are the only ones who can use the crystal. Of course, this minister wishes to use the crystal to control the floating castle to take power. Sheeta befriends a young boy and both are captured by sky pirates who are so charmed by the two kids that they work to help Sheeta stop the crystal from falling into the wrong hands. A young girl finds friendship, her own courage and a love of nature (because… always with the “nature” in a Miyazaki movie) are all recurring themes in Miyazaki films and this one is no different.

Dev Patel as David Copperfield. Image via The Movie Db.

The Personal History of David Copperfield
Not your typical retelling of the Dickens classic. Armando Iannucci, creator of In the Loop and Veep, reimagines this well known story with a diverse cast and by mashing up the tale to make this "feature-film-length" rather than "mini-series-length". One thing that always struck me about the book is how much of it takes place when young David is very young and just a lad, yet is told in a most adult vernacular. Iannucci takes this cue to have an adult Copperfield, played with wide-eyed wonder by Dev Patel, move in and out of the story’s timeline to great effect. The film is a delight and full of both Dickens’ and Iannucci’s fine dialogue with many recognizable British actors such as Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi and Gwendoline Christie.

Dafoe and Pattison as the keeper and his second. Image via The Movie Db.

The Lighthouse
Amazon Prime
Welcome to the madhouse, that is also a lighthouse. Willem Dafoe is Thomas Wake, the veteran keeper of an isolated lighthouse and Robert Pattinson is Thomas Howard, the keeper's second and dogsbody. Howard is a lumberman who has left a bad reputation up in “Canady” to earn money on this weather beaten rock. Can he withstand cleaning the cistern (which is both the privy and water source?), the terrible  weather, the hard labour, aggressive gulls and Wake’s taunts and drinking? No. No he can not. A harsh storm cuts the two men off from their supplies and their relief shift when the real insanity takes hold. The next question is can you withstand their “Heart of Darkness” style descent into the hell of their own minds?

Big Mouth S04
So dirty. So gross. So “woke". This animated show about a class of cussing, hormone haunted eighth graders goes where no other show could ever possibly go (we’re talking, talking vaginas, penises and yes, buttholes). It is hilarious. You will cringe and laugh and maybe cover your eyes but you will be better for it. 

Lovecraft Country. Image via The Movie Db.

Lovecraft Country
Let’s just give a rundown on what this sci-fi horror series set in 1950s Chicago from HBO touches on:
The (actual) Green Book and not the white saviour version.
Sunset counties.
The Tulsa Race Massacre.
Black girl magic/Black magic.
Horror (vampires, human sacrifice and such).
Racism, H.P. Lovecraft, white supremacists and so on.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rastus (the Cream of Wheat character).
Greek mythology (one character is named, Hippolyta and her daughter is Diana).
Time travel and the multi-verse.
Christianity (as just another form of magic).
The death of Emmet Till.
James Baldwin and other notable Black American intellectuals.
Sexuality, homosexuality, Gender Fluidity.
Generational trauma and systematic violence.
American Imperialism
I think that scratches the surface. Side note: how is it that for almost 100 years The Tulsa Race Massacre had been erased from history but two HBO series (Watchmen being the other) in the same year take important cues and re-enactments from those events? That’s what diversity in the writer’s room gives you and I hope it keeps on giving.

A beautiful and spiritual forest bathing documentary about the wonderfully complex connections, science and importance of the boreal forest.

Good Trouble
A documentary about American civil rights activist and politician, John Lewis who passed away in 2020. The title of the film comes from an expression Lewis coined when speaking about the kind of trouble you make when you disrupt a system that has held so many back for so long. Lewis had worked for equality, peacefully for 60 years from the march for voting rights in Selma, Alabama in 1965 up to the 2016 presidential election and throughout the last four years when voter suppression was as pernicious as it had ever been. To know his journey and life is to see the history of America laid bare and realize that there is plenty of good trouble to get up to. Enter Stacy Abrams.

Self-tying shoes on a hoverboard. Image via The Movie Db.

Back to the Future I, II, III

Amazon Prime
What to say about this trilogy of time traveling that hasn’t already been said? Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown travel from the 1980s to the 1950s, then on to the 21st century, and finally to the 19th century and back, all to correct a minor error in judgment. Clearly 1985’s ideas of what 2015 would be like didn’t hold up so well - we still don’t have the hoverboard despite the best efforts of Tony Hawk but we did get self-tying shoes so I guess that’s something.

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