Sunday, March 24, 2024

Seen in February 

Peak Cher in Moonstruck with Nicholas Cage.

With the passing of Norman Jewison it seemed appropriate to seek out his better known films. We saw Moonstruck and unfortunately didn't get much further. Lately, I've noticed how many services I pay for but don't use so in the next month or so, I'm going to focus on the "use it or lose it" philosophy of streaming services. Until decision day, I'll probably see how I can spread my time across these catalogues. Will it be like peanut butter, spread to the edge, or a dollop of ketchup on top of your fries? Only time will tell.

With the passing of Norman Jewison, we thought it would be appropriate to watch one of his most popular films, and as it is from 1987, it’s also peak-Cher. I have to wonder if this film introduced a wider audience to many of the Italian-American stereotypes that today would be considered such clichés that you would have to avoid them. Let’s give the filmmakers a pass on that front. Cher plays Loretta, a woman who has fallen in love with her fiancé’s estranged brother, Ronny (Nicholas Cage) while discovering her father (Vincent Gardenia) is cheating on her mother (Olympia Dukakis). This is a reliable rom-com set in fairytale New York but my real problem with the story is the motivations of each character seem slim to nonexistent. Loretta’s fiancé (Danny Aiello) proposes just before leaving for Italy to be with his dying mother. Loretta has agreed to the proposal despite not loving him because he’s a good guy or something. When she goes to meet the estranged brother she immediately upsets him only to decide to soothe him by making him a steak and before the entree is finished they’ve both fallen for each other. Likewise, when Loretta’s mother suspects her husband is cheating, the matter is resolved before the pancakes are cold. While I appreciate that this is more fable than fact (lovers affected by a full moon etc.) I find it hard to believe this was the Academy’s pick for best screenplay. The dialogue is so perfunctory at times it feels like a first draft. No wonder Hollywood fears AI bots will take their jobs.

The Pigeon Tunnel
Apple TV+
This documentary from the formidable filmmaker Errol Morris is an interview with famed spy novelist John le Carré (presumably his last interview before he died in 2020). Le Carré was the pen name of David Cornwell, who not only wrote acclaimed espionage fiction but famously worked for British intelligence in his youth and spent time in Berlin when it was the hot spot of the Cold War. We discover in this film that his ability to write about spying, and the betrayal and lies that accompany it, came not only from his time in the service but also from his own life as his father was a prolific con man who moved on from one scheme to the next, leaving shattered lives in his wake. I found it a fascinating insight into how a writer can tell his own story through the lives of others and, like a spy in the shadows, hide in plain sight.

Mister and the Missus.

Mr. & Mrs. Smith S01
From the sublime to the ridiculous, the writing in this action-comedy series leaves much for the viewer to fill in for ourselves, which, in many ways, seems to respect our intelligence. Like the movie of the same name, John (Donald Glover) and Jane (Maya Erskine) are two paid assassins and spies who work for an unnamed corporation. Unlike the film, the two protagonists know the marriage is a contrivance yet still manage, despite their profession, to fall in love. The producers and writers are the same team behind Glover’s previous show, Atlanta, which explains both the complex, surreal situations that cover societal norms on race, relationships, friendships, trust, betrayal and, in the end, real estate. This show takes the premise of the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie film but leaves it behind on the shore as it sets its own intriguing course.

Theater Camp
A sort of cute, funny PG version of Waiting for Guffman, set a theatre camp in upstate New York fighting for its financial survival.

The Barber of Little Rock
YouTube - New Yorker Channel
A documentary short about a successful African American barber who wants to use his success as a springboard for projects that include teaching barbering, business practices and financial planning to another generation of African Americans in his community in Little Rock, Arkansas. Not only does Arlo Washington want to pass on knowledge and coaching but has created a not-for-profit bank called People Trust to provide grants, loans and equity to aspiring Black entrepreneurs who are typically dismissed by larger white-owned and operated banks. It’s an inspiring story of what you can achieve when you believe in people.

The wildly imaginative and unconvential Poor Things.

Poor Things
“…the film melds a Victorian comedy of social mores with sci-fi body horror, packaged in anachronistic steampunk imagery and punctuated by contemporary feminist politics.”
— Adam Nayman
Toronto Star

I can't do better than that description but would add that it's a little like Frankenstein's Monster crossed with Being John Malkovich. Bella Baxter (Emma Stone) is a woman found drowned yet with her unborn child still living in her womb. Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Defoe) sees a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and transplants the child's brain to Bella's adult body. As Bella learns like a child, she appears both naive and almost entirely "Id" without ego or superego and at times reminds us of the adventures of Voltaire's Candide. Bella sees no need for societal niceties or norms and when she is whisked away on a trip with the Doctor's lawyer, Duncan Wedderbum (Mark Ruffalo) she fully embraces her sexual exploration and challenges how a woman should behave in the world. The absurdity and plainly depicted sex make the film feel a little like a 70s movie when we see characters engage in any number of activities that just don't show up in movies that much anymore. The result is a funny and thoughtful fantastical fable.

Taylor Tomlinson: Have It All
The new host of the live comedy show After Midnight on CBS proves in this standup special that, despite her youthfulness, she is a seasoned performer, comfortable with "crowd work", which is no surprise given her quick quips and ability to connect with the audience.

I recently swam 1625m in 35 minutes (or so). That sounds like an OK distance in metres but in kilometres, it’s only 1.63 (rounding up). To me that still sounds pretty good - a metric mile! Diana Nyad swam more than 100 times that distance, 177 KM in about 53 hours. In other words, I would have to go to the pool daily for over three months to cover the same distance. Aided at times by the sea currents but also deterred by the presence of swell and creatures like poisonous box jellyfish, Nyad made this swim at the age of 64. Diana Nyad does not seem like an easy person to like, nevermind to love, yet she surrounds herself with an excellent team of friends, like Bonnie (Jodie Foster, who had quite a busy year), who both push Nyad to complete the challenge and are pushed by her. As much as it was an incredible physical challenge, the swim is an even greater mental one.

Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers.

True Detective: Night Country
Since the first season of the anthology detective series, hopes have been high for the show to reach the same heights as that initial outing. The following two seasons disappointed fans and critics alike but hearing that Jodie Foster had taken one of the lead roles there was a certain buzz about this latest season. If you are unfamiliar with True Detective, the show often mixes gruesome murder mysteries with a dash of supernatural eeriness. Night Country is set in Alaska during the days which are essentially night, when the sun doesn't make an appearance at all. Chief Danvers (Foster) is called to an Arctic research facility to investigate the disappearance of six scientists who are later discovered, naked, and frozen in a heap of dead bodies. The mystery and questions start there. If there's one criticism of the show is perhaps it reaches too far and introduces too many ideas: the otherworldly nature of the far north, violence against women, indigenous issues, environmental issues, misogyny, spirituality, philosophy, generational trauma, memory, policing, and so on. Despite some unexplained plot points and red herrings, the show feels like it is trying to capture the eeriness of Twin Peaks with the plot-driven drama of a police procedural. For the most part, it succeeds and where it doesn’t, as Danvers says, some questions don’t have answers.

Apple TV+
Animated short that is long on cute. A young sandpiper overcomes their fear of the surf with the help of some new friends.

Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) and his niece, Niko (Arisa Nakano) having a perfect day.

Perfect Days
This is the first Wim Wenders film I’ve seen in ages and it’s sort of a perfect, simple film. The one word that came to mind while watching was how effortless it felt. The film follows Hirayama (Koji Yakusho) who is a toilet cleaner in Tokyo. Despite what might seem a lowly job, Hirayama takes care in his work, enjoys his music, reads challenging novels, takes photos of his favourite trees and takes care of seedlings that he nurtures in his small apartment. We get the sense that he perhaps comes from an affluent family who he is mostly estranged from and most people who know him only see one aspect of his life. A co-worker to whom Hirayama loans money, a bookshop owner from whom he buys discounted books, the elderly gentlemen at the bathhouse, the restaurant owner where he often eats and the owner of a small bar he frequents are all people in his sphere yet none of them really know each other. Through following Hirayama we see that his happiness, his joy and his enjoyment of life are all a matter of perspective. No matter what the weather, he starts his day the same way, by looking skyward and taking in a deep breath of what the world offers.

Umberto Eco: a Library of the World
A retrospective documentary of the life of the great Italian writer, semiotician and critic, Umberto Eco, as told through his own immense library of rare books. Eco had a personal library of some 1200 rare books and another 30,000 contemporary books organized in his own unique way. One of his favourite types of books were either fake or ones were convincing but had entirely incorrect ideas. In Eco’s eyes, the only way to find truth was in fiction. One of his arguments was that great minds might debate the validity and meaning of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit but it is inarguable that Clark Kent is Superman. The joy he shared through his discoveries about the written word and printed text is unparalleled and while his body has left this earth, his fine mind will be forever captured in the many published works he left behind.

Hunham and Angus on a "field trip" of sorts.

The Holdovers
Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is an unpopular teacher of ancient history at an exclusive, though fading, boys prep school, Barton College. As a bachelor with no family, he's been given the unenviable task of minding the handful of students who are unable to travel home for the Christmas holiday. Along with a caretaker and the cook, Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), who runs the dining room, they are the only souls echoing around the halls of Barton at Christmas. Within days, one of the boys' family has a change of heart and his father drops by the school in his helicopter to take his son and companions on a ski trip. All but one gets approval from their parents, leaving only Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) behind with Hunham and Mary. Each one has their own tale of woe and sadness that we discover during their time together. Set in 1970, the film, directed by Alexander Payne, is a throwback filmed in an older aspect ratio, with period music and even era-specific cinematic conventions. Its look and feel and ambivalent ending all harken to a time when a film told more by offering less. It's a story of people, lost in their own desolation, who by this accident of time and place, find a way through that dark time to a more hopeful future. It's funny, moving and supremely well executed even if its only innovation is to revisit well-established movie traditions of the past.

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