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Including Nine Perfect Strangers, The Chair, In The Same Breath, The Truffle Hunters and The Night House
Our picks for the best new movies and TV shows coming out this week. Plus Everything new to VOD and streaming platforms for the weekend of August 20.
Big Little Lies writer/producer David E. Kelley and star Nicole Kidman bring another Liane Moriarty novel to your screen, assembling a very impressive cast to spin a new bingeable mystery. This one is about a handful of random people (Melissa McCarthy, Michael Shannon, Bobby Cannavale, Regina Hall, Samara Weaving, Melvin Gregg, Luke Evans, Asher Keddie and Grace Van Patten) who sign up for an exclusive California wellness retreat, where an enigmatic guru (Kidman) offers to completely reinvent them in 10 days’ time through means which are as radical as they are risky. If you’re looking to recapture the sharp edges and overlapping domestic issues of Big Little Lies, this might not be your cup of tea; Nine Perfect Strangers shares the attention to detail and the appreciation of idiosyncratic performance, but it’s got something wilder and sadder going on underneath. And every member of the cast is up for whatever they’re asked to do: McCarthy and Cannavale have a spiky, endearing arc as broken people who hate each other on sight, Hall’s nervous divorcée is a symphony of despair and insecurity and Evans is a delight as a boundary-free Welshman. But it’s Shannon, Keddie and Van Patten who have the most compelling storyline as a suburban family shattered by a recent loss, and who’ll do almost anything to make it go away. Read a longer review here. New episodes Fridays on Amazon Prime Video Canada. NNNN (Norman Wilner)
If you’re going to build a show about a perpetually exasperated character, of course you cast Sandra Oh. She’s always had a gift for comic frustration, and having her play the first person of colour – and the first woman, period – to chair her fictional Ivy League university’s faltering English department is a great idea: that scenario offers endless obstacles for Oh’s Ji-yoon, starting with her attempts to modernize the calcified, disconnected faculty (including Bob Balaban and Holland Taylor) and pull her recently widowed star prof (Jay Duplass) out of a self-destructive spiral, all while dealing with a willful young daughter (Everly Carganilla) at home. And if The Chair stayed with Ji-yoon, it’d probably be a lot more entertaining. But it insists on splitting its time with Duplass’s sad-sack Bill, whose mockery of a Nazi salute triggers a scandal that runs through the entire series – and whose clueless entitlement the series gradually sides with. The general “no, it’s the children who are wrong” vibe feels depressingly in step with executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s response to audiences disappointed by the way they wrapped up Game Of Thrones rather than the work of creator/producers Peet and Annie Wyman. Read a longer review here. All six episodes now streaming on Netflix Canada. NN (NW)
Nanfu Wang’s impressive 2019 film One Child Nation showed the personal and far-reaching impacts of Chinese state propaganda by seamlessly blending several documentary genres. In The Same Breath finds her returning to similar territory, but via ingenious investigative reporting that takes viewers inside Wuhan’s hospitals, ambulances and crematoriums during the city’s coronavirus outbreak and the subsequent lockdown that stunned the world in January 2020. Working remotely with a group of local cinematographers, Wang calls into question China’s official death toll, and many other official lines, but also shows the way propaganda spreads like a kind of virus to undermine public health and health-care workers. Once again mixing in personal storytelling – she had left her son with her mother in a village not far from Wuhan when the pandemic took hold – the director, who lives in the U.S., also questions her own assumptions about the American response to COVID, drawing damning and sadly ironic parallels between the two government responses. In The Same Breath is among a handful of recent documentaries examining the Wuhan outbreak, but Wang stands out for her ability to tell a big-picture story through intimate scenes of working people forced into difficult choices beyond their control, while also exposing the levers of state power every step of the way. 95 min. Now available to stream on Crave. NNNN (Kevin Ritchie)
Blindsided by her husband’s suicide, middle-school teacher Beth (Rebecca Hall) tries to deal with the loss in their upstate New York lake house… and discovers that not only did she not know the late Owen (Evan Jonigkeit) as well as she thought, he might still be around. This isn’t Hall’s first paranormal rodeo; in fact, 10 years ago she starred in a remarkably similar ghost story, though that one was set in England after WWI. But she’s uniquely suited to exploring dark places both literal and metaphorical; at least two-thirds of The Night House takes place with her character alone in a given space, and she’s mesmerizing. She finds a reflexive sarcasm in Beth’s grief that becomes a strength, mixing it with her entirely reasonable anger at her husband for leaving her. The smartest aspect of Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski’s script is the understanding that a bereaved spouse might welcome a haunting, since any evidence of the paranormal means she might see her husband again. But as good as Hall’s performance is, she can’t make the ending work. Bruckner had the same difficulty with his last feature, The Ritual, which started well but couldn’t stop overcomplicating its slender story, ultimately hanging all its tension and suspense on an ambitious revelation it just couldn’t pull off. The final act of The Night House has the exact same problem, and it’s really disappointing to watch the whole thing collapse. 107 min. Now playing in theatres. NN (NW)
(Gregory Kershaw, Michael Dweck)
In a sea of Oscar bait and would-be crowd-pleasers, the delicate charms of Kershaw and Dweck’s documentary about the old, weird guys (and their dogs) who forage for truffles in the wilds of Italy’s Piedmont region slipped through TIFF almost unnoticed last year. But its contemplative, observational style – and the charms of its subjects – make The Truffle Hunters well worth watching on a late summer evening. Kershaw and Dweck drift along with their characters, favouring long takes and a reserved perspective. And these men are indeed characters, complaining about the commodification of their livelihood to their dogs and occasionally the camera. And while they might be cranky, they’re not wrong: the world is changing around them, becoming harsher and more demanding, and fewer and fewer people appreciate what they do. (No wonder film critics love this movie.) The Truffle Hunters isn’t interested in confrontations or artificial drama – the possibility of poachers leaving poison bait out for the dogs is as close as the movie comes to conflict. What it does very, very well is capture a disappearing lifestyle in all of its particular, idiosyncratic beauty, and leave us wondering what else we might be losing. 84 min. Subtitled. Now available on most VOD platforms (see below). NNNN (NW)
Ellie Reed, Paige Collins, Mochael Molina; directed by Jack Lawrence Mayer
With the voices of Lake Bell, Michael Cera, Peter Stormare; directed by Dash Shaw
Carly Pope, Chris William Martin, Terry Chen; directed by Neill Blomkamp
Dev Patel, Alicia VIkander, Joel Edgerton; directed by David Lowery
Ayaka Miyoshi, Ryota Bando, Megumi Okina; directed by Takashi Shimizu
Billie Piper, Leo Bill, Lily James; directed by Billie Piper
Henry Golding, Andrew Koji, Ursula Corbero; directed by Robert Schwentke
Matt Damon, Camille Cotin, Abigail Breslin; directed by Tom McCarthy
Documentary directed by Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw
Everything coming to streaming platforms this month:
Conceived as the first in a series of fly-on-the-wall television documentaries about the recordings of Broadway cast albums, D.A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: Company wound up being the only one of its kind – possibly because of the complexity of the production, or possibly because it saw far too much. Pennebaker captures American musical theatre luminaries Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince riding herd as the cast of their 1970 smash push through an endless day and night recording their numbers; the sequence of an exhausted Elaine Stritch forcing herself to do yet another take of her signature number The Ladies Who Lunch was instantly iconic, but half a century later the whole documentary feels just as essential. Pennebaker captures a moment in time for Broadway culture, right down to the cigarette smoke and the red eyes. It’s thrilling.
Criterion’s special edition of Original Cast Album: Company surrounds a splendid 4K restoration of the doc with supplements any theatre nerd could hope for – like a new audio commentary with Sondheim himself, who also participates in a Zoom conversation with orchestrator Jonathan Tunick and former New York Times theatre critic Frank Rich. Tunick gets his own segment, interviewed by Ted Chapin, and the commentary Pennebaker, Stritch and Prince recorded for Home Vision’s long-out-of-print 2001 DVD release is also included, along with audio outtakes from interviews Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus conducted with the actor and director at the time.
And then there’s the real reason Original Cast Album: Company is suddenly culturally relevant again. Criterion has also included the 2019 Documentary Now! episode Original Cast Album: Co-Op, which stars John Mulaney as a Sondheim-like obsessive driving the cast of his extremely Manhattan (and freshly cancelled) musical to the brink of madness over a marathon recording session.
It’s brilliant, replicating both Pennebaker’s observational texture and the extremely Manhattan nature of Sondheim’s Company songs, refashioned as pastiche numbers written by Mulaney, Seth Meyers and Eli Bolin and sung by a cast of stage ringers like Hamilton’s Renee Elise Goldsberry, School Of Rock’s Alex Brightman and The Drowsy Chaperone’s Richard Kind, with Paula Pell stealing scenes as a Stritch-like grand dame. And Criterion acknowledges its greatness by giving the episode its own supplement, a conversation between Bolin, Brightman, Goldsberry, Kind, Mulaney, Pell and director Alexander Buono recorded remotely in the spring of 2020 that feels like a Zoom after-party, with a roomful of artists rightly proud of a successful project while also trying to repress the anxiety they’re clearly feeling about the pandemic. It might be my favourite supplement of the year so far, just because it speaks so clearly to the moment it was recorded and to the sheer nerdiness of everyone involved.