Thursday, 7 January 2021

Great Netflix Films of 2020: Ma Rainey, Disclosure, Mank, Chicago 7, Ending Things, Social Dilemma

I haven’t decided whether COVID was the result of a conspiracy initiated by Zoom, Netflix or Jeff Bezos (NOT a serious accusation), but Netflix has certainly benefitted hugely from the pandemic. As I have no doubt written in a previous post, I am not a huge fan of streaming services, including Netflix. That’s because they cause people to watch inferior films and TV shows, along with some excellent ones. When people are limited to what’s available for streaming, they can’t (or usually don’t) pick and choose the films they want to see and often watch films they would not have wasted their time on if they had been renting from Blockbuster (for example). I haven’t tried to do a careful study, but my glance through various lists suggests the bad films being offered on most of the streaming services far outnumber the good ones.

Nevertheless, after 2020, my feelings toward Netflix are somewhat mixed. That’s because Netflix’s big year (of COVID) happened to coincide with by far its best year for producing films. Until 2020, only two Netflix films (Roma, The Two Popes) had made it into my lists of top ten/fifteen films of the year. In 2020, an astonishing six Netflix films are likely to make my list of top fifteen films of the year, and that’s not counting the too-violent Da 5 Bloods, the too-simplistic The Midnight Sky and the too-meandering Dick Johnson is Dead, all three of which I thought were otherwise excellent films. Here are the six four-star (my rating) films Netflix released in 2020, in order (best first):



Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom


An absolute masterpiece in every way, George C. Wolfe’s film (based on a play by August Wilson) about the recording of a blues album in 1927 Chicago is all the more miraculous because it stars a man (Chadwick Boseman) who was dying of cancer when he delivered his Oscar-worthy performance. Watching Boseman perform is gut-wrenching at various levels, though his performance is matched by that of Viola Davis as Ma Rainey. The other actors are almost as good. Meanwhile, the cinematography is gorgeous throughout and the dialogue is superb. The negative critique that Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is too stagey doesn’t work for me because I love intelligent play-like film adaptations if the production design provides good period detail and a strong film feel, as this film did.




Disclosure


Previously reviewed on this blog, Disclosure is a critically-important documentary about the portrayal of trans people in Hollywood over the past century. Full of film clips and expert commentary, Disclosure is captivating and intelligent throughout (though I wish it hadn’t focused so much on Hollywood and, in the last half of the film, on TV). 




Mank


David Fincher’s biographical drama about Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank) writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane (one of the greatest films ever made) is a beautifully-structured film. Those less familiar with the context for the film might find the beginning of Mank to be somewhat challenging, but once the flashback-driven story comes into focus, I found it riveting. The black & white cinematography is perfect, as is the score and the performance of Gary Oldman as Mank. The screenplay by Fincher’s late father (Jack Fincher) is clever and insightful and the production design provides a great feel for 1930’s California. 




The Trial of the Chicago 7


Aaron Sorkin’s film about the trial of anti-Vietnam War protestors (known as the Chicago Seven)  in 1968 is as compelling as one would expect from a Sorkin-written film. The story of the protestors, who were accused of inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention, is told through flashbacks and court proceedings. I would have liked more background on the war protesting itself, but that’s not what this film is about, and I do love courtroom dramas. Excellent performances by an ensemble cast are highlighted by the work of Eddie Redmayne and Sacha Baron Cohen. The major criticism of The Trial of the Chicago 7 was that it wasn’t true to history. I grow tired of such complaints. This is a dramatic presentation based on actual events; it’s not a documentary. 




I’m Thinking of Ending Things


Charlie Kaufman is is an eccentric filmmaker. In spite of that (or because of that) I have very much liked every film he has made. So while I expected I’m Thinking of Ending Things to be quirky, I did not expect the film’s story to completely elude me (i.e. I never had any clear idea of what was going on during the film’s 135 minutes). But the incredible thing is that I loved every captivating minute of this film even without knowing what was going on. That’s a singular achievement, if a little disappointing. The cinematography, acting (by Jessie Buckley, Jesse Plemons, Toni Collette and David Thewlis) and score are all outstanding, the screenplay (based on a novel, set in Ontario, by Iain Reid) is super-intelligent (if sometimes incomprehensible), and I adored the unpredictable originality (I never had any idea what was coming next). I can’t tell you what I’m Thinking of Ending Things is about, but the heart of the story (a psychological thriller?) is a young couple’s visit to the man’s parents (they live on a farm somewhere in New York) during a snowstorm.


The Social Dilemma


Another must-see documentary on Netflix, Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma is an informative and entertaining look at the dangers of social media. Featuring interviews with former leaders in companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter as well as a dramatization of one family’s experience with social media, The Social Dilemma provides a fresh look at ideas that have been written about for many years but have not really been taken seriously. It does so in a way that doesn’t talk down to people but is relatively easy to follow, which is quite the feat. Whether people will be induced to wake up to the fact that they are in the ‘matrix’ before computer algorithms take over the world remains to be seen. 


Saturday, 31 October 2020

To Sean Connery

Perhaps my all-time favourite actor (certainly my FIRST favourite actor, after watching Dr. No and From Russia With Love at the theatre one marvellous day in 1972) has died (at age 90). I was first introduced to Connery’s work at the age of 13, when I saw Darby O’Gill and the Little People at the theatre (re-release of the 1959 Disney film). Three years later I watched the re-release of the first two James Bond films and Connery was my hero. While those two Bond films remain among my favourites, I most admired Connery’s acting in Outland, The Name of the Rose and The Russia House, all three of which are, in my opinion, very underrated films. But I enjoyed watching Connery in almost every film he played (notable exceptions were The Avengers (1998) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which I thought were very much not worthy of his talents).

Thanks for all the memories, Sean.


Friday, 25 September 2020

My Octopus Teacher

This unique documentary would have had a strong appeal for me even if I hadn’t gone through a childhood phase of wanting to be a marine biologist. The film invites us into a world that is ours, even though most of us don’t know it. 

Watching this documentary is a contemplative experience. For a while, I wanted to make the filmmaker’s underwater journey into a metaphor – and I’m sure that could be done. But I soon gave that up and preferred entering the experience of watching and absorbing the film as an act of contemplation unto itself.

Questions that can’t be put into words arose while watching. But approximations are ponderings like, “What is going on here?” and “What shifts in my feelings about the universe?”

OK, writing the latter question makes me nervous because I know some people will watch this and wonder what on earth goes through my head. Of course, everyone will see a film like this in their own way. Maybe it even functions a bit like a Rorschach test – providing an ambiguous stimuli upon which we all project our own meanings.

More prosaically, there is amazingly beautiful photography, and the narrator’s journey is told with humility and humanity. And, it must be said, this Netflix film has nothing whatsoever to do with politics – and perhaps that is enough reason in itself to watch it and is the source of its healing potential. I’ve seen reviewers refer to it as a love story. True enough, but one quite unlike what you’ve seen before. **** and a mug held high.


Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Tenet


Okay then.

Uh-huh.


Coulda been a wow, at least on one level. 


Christopher Nolan, you have certainly made my first trip to the cinema since early January a memorable one, with a mind-blowing film that kept me riveted for two and a half hours. Some would say (and do say) that this is the perfect way to et back into the cinema seat after such a long break. And maybe I would agree iff only the film had made even a little bit of sense. And if only the sound wasn’t so poorly done that neither Walter nor I could understand more than about 80% of the dialogue.


Yeah, Walter and I headed back to the cinema yesterday to watch Nolan’s big blockbuster, Tenet. The reviews were mixed, with half of the critics giving Tenet some absurdly generous four or five-star reviews. I can only assume that the overwhelming nature of Tenet (one reviewer said you “must be entertained by the overwhelming nonsense of it all”) left these critics in a state of shock, where only the fact that they had watched a riveting spectacle on the large screen for the first time in months was important. Based on that criteria, Tenet does indeed deserve the highest praise. And maybe I was “entertained” but I cannot endorse nonsense - just doesn’t work for me.


It’s true that Tenet is precisely the right kind of film to watch when you haven’t been to the cinema for a while, with eye-popping special effects, gorgeous locations, a good score and endless action done with Nolan’s characteristic brilliance.


Unfortunately, I expected more, especially as I found the endless action very tedious (I just don’t like action). From Nolan, I expect a challenging film that doesn’t talk down to the audience, and Tenet certainly was that. But as difficult as Nolan’s previous films have been to understand, I was able, at least after a second viewing, to follow their stories. Films like Memento, Interstellar and Inception are among my all-time favourites. But Tenet isn’t going to come close, because neither Walter nor I could follow the story at all. And when I tried to find a synopsis online, I couldn’t find a single one that made any more sense than the film.


So I won’t try to summarize the plot. I’ll just say that it involves a secret agent (John David Washington) trying to prevent World War III, a war in which the enemy is from the future and believes it can wipe out the past and still live on. That alone stretches the grey cells, but when the concept of inverted entropy is introduced, involving objects moving backwards through time, the plot gets out of hand very quickly. The unnamed secret agent gets the help of a mysterious fellow named Neil (Robert Pattinson) and does business with some very wealthy arms dealers who know too much (e.g. Priya, played by Dimple Kapadia), and then there’s Kenneth Branagh as Andrei Sator, the Russian baddie. Some critics have cringed at Branagh’s accent, but I thought he gave an excellent relatively-understated performance. Playing his wife, Kat, a central figure in the plot, is Elizabeth Debicki.


The acting wasn’t exceptional but it was good enough. There were times when Washington was terrific and times when I wondered why he had been cast as a Bond-like secret agent. Pattinson and Debicki were particularly good. The dialogue, when it can be understood, is also quite good, but, like the acting, a little uneven.


The main problem with Tenet is Nolan. I wrote a post about him back in July, 2010, because I was beginning to wonder whether I had overrated his films. Specifically, I was worried about Nolan’s tendency to give us contrived plots that stretched credulity too far (The Dark Knight is my favourite example, but all of his films are overly-contrived). As with Inception, Tenet is so impossibly convoluted and inherently contrived that it’s almost impossible to extract the individual  contrived moments. But, as I said, I eventually understood Inception’s plot and forgave Nolan for his contrivances. Perhaps someday my future self will watch Tenet for the second or third time and move backward through time to correct this post (in which case you probably aren’t reading this), but for now I am sticking with my initial assessment: Tenet is definitely one step too far for Mr. Nolan - I don’t believe it is possible to make sense of it and I think it was a mistake for Nolan to try. I also hated all that nonstop action and the film’s general lack of heart. So I can’t give Tenet more than **+. My mug is down.


To all you action lovers: Sorry about that. I do, in fact, recommend this film to folks like you.



Sunday, 9 August 2020

Sorry We Missed You

I’ve been a big Ken Loach fan for decades. I haven’t watched all of his films, but, of the dozen or so that I have watched, almost every one received either ***+ or ****. The amazing thing is that his last two films (which Loach made in his 80’s) are, for me, his very best films. I, Daniel Blake was one of my two favourite films of 2016 and Sorry We Missed You (a 2019 film not released in Canada until 2020) is currently my favourite film of 2020.

Due credit needs to be given to Paul Laverty, who wrote the screenplay for most of Loach’s films (including the two mentioned above). The writing in Sorry We Missed You is brilliant throughout, as are the raw and natural performances of the largely unknown cast.

Sorry We Missed You stars Kris Hitchin as Ricky, a middle-aged man who is given the opportunity to be a self-employed delivery driver in a northeast England city (Newcastle?) and sees it as a way out of the debt that has haunted his family (wife, two children) since the 2008 financial crisis. Ricky’s wife, Abbie (Debbie Honeywood), works long hours as a home care nurse, a job made bearable by the use of the family car. But Ricky needs to sell the car to buy the delivery van, creating a lot of stress for Abbie. Ricky’s delivery job is also rather stressful (understatement).

If the work stresses aren’t enough, teenage son Seb (Rhys Stone) is in trouble at school and acting out in other ways, leaving daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) to try to keep the family from self-destructing, a job she may not be up to. The tension in Sorry We Missed You builds relentlessly as crisis follows crisis.

You got it - this is not a happy film, which is no big surprise from Loach and Laverty. What Sorry We Missed You is, is a raw heartfelt film about the ordinary lives of average people in England struggling to make ends meet and make their lives better. There is no sentimentalizing melodrama here, just a lot of empathy and a thought-provoking story about life and alienation in 2019 England. Good thing financial stress is no longer an issue in 2020! Sigh.

Sorry We Missed You gets an easy ****. My mug is up.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

The Vast of Night




Up until two weeks ago, I had seen only two films that were worthy of being on my list of top ten films of 2020. One of those is the previously reviewed Disclosure. The other is Ken Loach’s 2019 film, Sorry We Missed You, which was not released in Canada until 2020. But I’ve watched two more top-ten-worthy films in the last two weeks, so it’s time to post reviews of the year’s best films so far (that I’ve been able to watch). One of those reviews is posted here. The others will follow during the next few days.

Amazon Prime (in Canada at least) does not offer the greatest collection of films (understatement). But one of the surprising gems on offer is a low-budget indie sci-fi flick called The Vast of Night that was released at the end of May (it was not financed by Amazon, but is being distributed by Amazon).

Set in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico in the late 1950’s, the story follows the lives of two teenagers during one evening in fall, when most of the town’s people are watching a high school basketball game. Fay (Sierra McCormick), is a switchboard operator who suddenly hears strange sounds coming from her radio and over a telephone line. She calls Everett (Jake Horowitz), who works as a disc jockey at the local radio station, and he confirms the strange sounds were heard on the radio. When people start calling in about also seeing strange things in the sky, Fay and Everett take it upon themselves to investigate.

Uniquely framed to look something like an episode of The Twilight Zone, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night looks and feels very much like something made in the late 1950’s. But while this film should be rated G and has a sci-fi B-movie feel, the production values are entirely Grade A, with stunning cinematography and style to spare. The acting by the unknown cast is likewise excellent, as is the writing by Patterson and Craig W. Sanger.

If you like well-made old-fashioned sci-fi films that are heavy on dialogue and atmosphere and low on action, don’t miss this one. The Vast of Night gets ***+ - ****. My mug is up.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Dark - update after all three seasons



I have now watched the first season of this German Netflix sci-fi ‘thriller’ three times, the second season twice, and the third (final) season once. Endlessly captivating in spite of (or because of) its slow pace, Dark is gorgeous to watch and listen to (though the score was occasionally overwhelming) and features an intelligent screenplay and solid acting (some performances were less convincing than others). It sounds like a winner, and maybe it’s one of the greatest TV shows ever, or maybe it’s just pretentious pseudo-science and pop philosophy/psychology/theology masquerading as brilliant TV.

Created by Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese (who also wrote most of the episodes), Dark is nothing if not an enigma. Despite the hours I spent on it, I do not claim to have the foggiest idea what happened in this show. It is easily the most complex TV I have ever watched. I had the feeling that I couldn’t binge watch it fast enough to keep up even if I did nothing else but watch all 26 episodes back to back. Perhaps if I could watch all 26 episodes simultaneously (in alternate universes?).

Dark is a time-travel show as well as (spoiler alert) a parallel-world show. The same set of characters (there are 33 characters played by 73 actors) appear as their older and younger selves and travel to six major time periods. It’s possible to see the same character appear as three or four people in one scene. Utter lunacy! And yet I couldn’t stop watching it. Dark presents an an endless array of philosophical ideas that may not have been as profound as they sounded but nevertheless made me think a great deal (always a good thing for me). 

Here’s a sample of some of the show’s juicy quotes: “Man is a strange creature. All his actions are motivated by desire, his character forged by pain. As much as he may try to suppress that pain, to repress the desire, he cannot free himself from the eternal servitude to his feelings. For as long as the storm rages within him, he cannot find peace. Not in life, not in death. And so he will do what he must, day in, day out. The pain is his vessel, desire his compass. It is all that man is capable of.” “We’re not free in what we do because we’re not free in what we want. We can’t overcome what’s deep within us.” “We are all full of sin. No pure human being exists. But no matter what we do, we never fall any lower than into God’s hands.” “In short, the god mankind has prayed to for thousands of years, the god that everything is bound with, this god exists as nothing other than time itself.” “Life is a labyrinth: Some people wander around their whole lives looking for a way out, but there’s only one path and it leads you ever deeper, into the centre.” And so on.

From the beginning, Dark is full of menace and mystery, as one boy disappears and another suddenly appears (dead) in the vicinity of a vast cave system that lies beneath what is supposed to be the first German nuclear power plant (it seemed like a good idea to build a nuclear reactor on top of a cave?). Both the mystery and the menace build from there until it is revealed that the town of Winden is at the heart of battle (supposedly between light and shadow) for the control of time itself. 

Dark is not afraid to mention all the paradoxes related to time travel and so the writers feel free to create more paradoxes than you can possibly keep up with. Perhaps Dark is as brilliant as it sounds - a work of pure genius. Perhaps not. The cinematography is stunning, the score uses a variety of sounds (including Inuit throat singing) to great effect, often giving the show a horror feel. The acting is solid but some actors (including the young star, who won awards for this role) give less-than-convincing performances. If you think you’ve read this here already, it’s just deja-vu - a glitch in the matrix. It means the universe is trying to tell you something.

The show’s biggest flaws are a number of violent scenes that seem to have no purpose and are not well-explained. Those flaws are a big enough problem to prevent me from giving Dark four stars, at least until someone explains to me why they were necessary.

So there it is. If you enjoy mind-bending shows like LOST and Fringe (and a great many people do) and you don’t mind a slow pace and not having a clue what’s going on, then Dark is a must-see show for you. Everyone else will probably want to give it a pass. As for me, I had a great time. A solid ***+. My mug is up.