NOW's critics review Ammonite, Mayor, Funny Boy, Mank and Big Mouth season 4
NOW critics pick what’s new to streaming and VOD for the weekend of December 4. Plus: Everything new to VOD and streaming platforms.
The premise may remind some of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, another period piece about two women who fall for one another in an unforgiving seaside location. But Ammonite is really a mirror image of writer/director Lee’s remarkable first feature God’s Own Country – telling the same story as its predecessor, but changing the genders of the lovers and the world in which they exist. And because those lovers are played by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite will likely get much more attention than Josh O’Connor and Alex Secareanu brought to that film. Winslet plays 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning, who lives in Dorset and divides her time between running her mother’s curio shop and excavating fossils at the coast. Then one day Charlotte Murchison (Ronan) accompanies her husband to the Annings’ shop, and everything changes. As he did in God’s Own Country, Lee shapes his film’s love story through disdain and exasperation; Mary treats the calm, unwavering Charlotte harshly and with cruelty, simply because she sees something in the younger woman that she cannot abide in herself. (Is it queerness, or just happiness?) But the two forge an understanding, and that understanding grows into something deeper. This is, after all, a love story. 117 minutes. Available on digital and on demand Friday (December 4). Read a full review here. NNNN (Norman Wilner)
(Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg)
Now that its nervous, awkward cast of pubescent adolescents and their surrealistic world of hormone monsters and overbearing or distracting parents is firmly established, this is the season Big Mouth gets truly ambitious, turning the kids’ everyday issues into operatic drama. Nick (Kroll) is still underdeveloped and oversensitive about it; Andrew (John Mulaney) is still a writhing mess of anxiety, Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) and Lola (Kroll) are getting scarily intense together. But there’s some stuff that genuinely matters: Matthew (Andrew Rannells) struggles with coming out to his parents, and Jessi (Jessi Klein), who’s moved to New York with her mother, gets a serious boyfriend (Sterling K. Brown) who’s pushing her towards more sexual activity than she’s prepared to handle. And the nerdtastic Missy spends the season slowly coming to terms with her mixed-race identity, partially to allow Jenny Slate to leave the role and let writer/actor Ayo Edebiri take over the character. There aren’t a lot of comedies that blend raunch with genuine insight in the way that Big Mouth does; the animation gives the show an elasticity that allows for genuine feeling to slip in when it’s least expected. (Oh, grow up.) Read a full reviwe here. All 10 episodes streaming Friday (December 4) on Netflix. NNNN (NW)
(Lawrence Michael Levine)
The timing is perfect, really: just after Happiest Season reminded everyone of the power of Aubrey Plaza’s mercurial presence and flawless comic timing, Black Bear arrives to showcase her full complexity and range. It’s much darker, and much more complicated, and Plaza is pretty much the whole show. Writer/director Levine – whose previous credits include the hipster murder mystery Wild Canaries and the California psychodrama Always Shine – casts Plaza as Allison, a filmmaker trying to figure out her next project while staying with a couple (Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon) at their lavish cabin. But her presence complicates her hosts’ already fraying relationship, leading to a blowout – and then to something else entirely, with the cabin hosting a film shoot that’s compromised by the director’s impatience and the star’s bad behaviour.
Black Bear is both emotionally and narratively messy, as Allison’s issues spin out into the people around her, but Levine and Plaza never step wrong. Black Bear is about variations on a theme, and it’s riveting to watch Plaza and her co-stars embody that theme, digging into the insecurities and creative paralysis that drive intelligent people to do very stupid, self-destructive things. Reality itself might be a matter of perspective, but as a wise man once said: no matter where you go, there you are. 104 minutes. Available on digital and on demand Friday (December 4). NNNN (NW)
Courtesy of CBC Gem
Deepa Mehta’s adaptation of the novel Funny Boy hits CBC Gem on December 4.
Adapting Funny Boy is no joke. Shyam Selvadurai’s 1994 collection of short stories revolve around Arjie, a young, queer Tamil boy who tries to keep his head up in Sri Lanka, where being gay and being Tamil are treated as offences punishable by martial law. There’s just too much to be contained in a single film weaving an intimate coming-of-age arc against a complex and hostile social environment. Characters and dialogue are often burdened with spelling out not only the anxiety between the Tamils and Sinhalese, but also the fissures and class issues within the Tamil community. Funny Boy is most invested in the country’s political turmoil, and how Arjie’s family position themselves. The queer story sort of hangs there as a result. But director Deepa Mehta’s adaptation is often admirable, or at least fascinating, for its attempt to incorporate the book’s multitudes and for the nuances it builds into a melodrama largely told in broad and obvious strokes. Read a full review here and an interview with Mehta here. 109 minutes. Some subtitles. Airing on CBC and streaming on CBC Gem December 4. NNN (Radheyan Simonpillai)
First things first: Mank is not about the making of Citizen Kane, or even really about the writing of it. Mostly it’s about re-creating the world in which Orson Welles’s landmark first feature gestated: Southern California in the late 30s, where screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz rubbed elbows with wealthy titans like William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper empire, political ambitions and relationship with the starlet Marion Davies served as the basis for the fictional Charles Foster Kane. Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz; Charles Dance is Hearst and Amanda Seyfried is Davies, and a great deal of Fincher’s Mank is about imagining what their conversations would have been like, and how much fun it must have been to be a Hollywood screenwriter back when writing seemed to consist exclusively of hanging out with fellow journalists and playwrights, and trading stories and snappy lines. That’s clearly the world that appealed to Fincher’s late father Jack, who wrote this movie in the early 90s, and Fincher fils seems determined to honour his father’s intentions without ever figuring out what this film is really about. Much like his 2011 adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, every detail has been worked out to within an inch of its life, but you never get a sense of why he wanted to make the thing in the first place. The effort is admirable, though. Read a full review here. 131 minutes. Available to stream on Netflix Friday (December 4). NN (NW)
There’s something Capraesque about the opening moments of this documentary about Musa Hadid, who’s served as the mayor of Ramallah, the de facto Palestinian capital, since 2012. Director Osit sets the mood with a shot of a trendy cafe decorated for Christmas and Hadid walking through the streets as various residents cheerfully offer greetings. He’s off to a meeting about city branding for a tourism campaign. But it’s not long before geopolitical concerns beyond the scope of local officials intrude on the business of running a city. Ramallah has been under Israeli occupation since the Six Day War of 1967 and clashes with nearby Israeli settlers and Israeli Defense Forces raids keep everyone on edge.
Shot during the holiday season in 2017 when President Trump moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Mayor offers a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict via a story of civic pride. Hadid is a composed, thoughtful figure who wants Ramallah to grow into a world-class city, but must seek Israeli approvals for basic infrastructure requests. He’s opinionated when he needs to be, but is also seasoned at coolly navigating chaos and juggling multiple points of view. Osit doesn’t push his subject, instead the director contrasts sometimes dryly funny day-to-day bureaucratic machinations with extraordinary events to give viewers a weighty sense of the existential. The simple act of enjoying a public Christmas tree becomes a form of political resistance, and an elaborate Bellagio-like water fountain becomes an escapist reprieve. And it could all be irreparably damaged at any time. 89 minutes. Subtitled. Available December 3 via Hot Docs at Home. NNNN (Kevin Ritchie)
(Joel Bakan, Jennifer Abbott)
The New Corporation uses “The Unfortunately Necessary Sequel” as its subtitle, and honestly I wouldn’t have blamed them if Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott had just gone with “We Told You So” instead. They told us, 17 years ago, that entities dedicated to inflating their own profits at the expense of everything and anything would inevitably roll over everything and everyone in their way – arguing that if the modern corporation was put through a psychological assessment, it’d be diagnosed a psychopath. And now, here we are in 2020 and the psychopaths have won. With a brisk efficiency, The New Corporation guides us through the ensuing years of economic collapses and global decay, as corporations continue to pursue their domination of both the physical and virtual world. (It’s especially interesting to see Bakan and Abbott incorporate COVID-19 into their narrative as both a technical obstacle to be worked through and the inevitable result of corporate disregard for public health.) There’s not a lot of new information here, but the organization is thoughtful and pointed, summing up two decades of immoral, destructive conduct by businesses whose CEOs understand that any fines that might be levied against them for their actions are worth paying, given the massive profits those actions will create. And yes, this furious anti-corporate documentary counts Rogers and Bell among its production partners. That’s 2020 for you. 106 min. Some subtitles. Available to stream at Hot Docs At Home Friday (December 4). NNNN (NW)
Courtesy of TIFF
Doctors take a rest break in the documentary 76 Days.
(Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, Anonymous)
Shot guerilla-style inside four Wuhan hospitals over the course of China’s lockdown, 76 Days is a story about health-care professionals doing their best to care for an endless onslaught of patients as COVID-19 whips through the population. New York-based filmmaker Wu – who created a narrative out of footage sent out of China by co-directors Weixi Chen and an anonymous filmmaker – presents that story with a minimum of editorial flourishes or helpful soundtrack cues. There’s an initial flash-forward that finds a hospital official cataloguing the possessions of the dead, and then we’re back at the beginning of the outbreak, with new arrivals being asked to triage themselves on the other side of a very heavy door, so the staff can admit them one at a time by urgency. Wu repeatedly checks in on a couple of patients: an older man with dementia who wanders the corridors demanding to go home, and a more cooperative woman trying to keep her spirits up as her condition worsens. We root for them, even as the staff mutter about ventilators and other radical measures. 76 Days emulates the feeling of the doctors themselves, racing to deal with the next problem as quickly as possible because stopping for even a moment could lead to total collapse. (Emotional? Systemic? Either, or probably both.) The movie is both journalism and history, the cameras at ground level on ground zero. 93 min. Subtitled. Available to stream at Hot Docs At Home Friday (December 4). NNNN NW
Presented by JAYU, the 9th annual Human Rights Film Festival organizes a week of art, film and workshop, all focused on activism and social justice. Standout documentaries include The Fever (Friday, 6:30 pm), about Africans working to reduce the impact of malaria in their communities, and Maddy The Model (Saturday, 11 am), which follows Madeleine Stuart, an Australian supermodel with Down syndrome. All events are free, but don’t forget to register online – and don’t be late, because these streams are all time-locked. Through December 10 at hrff.ca
The eighth edition of MISAFF brings its slate of features, shorts and documentaries online, reaching well beyond its usual Mississauga audience. Selections include The Forbidden Reel, Ariel Nasr’s excellent history of Afghan cinema and the race to preserve it, and Circus Of Life, Pakistan’s submission for this year’s international feature Oscar, which closes the festival December 12. And though the festival’s plans to open with a screening of Deepa Mehta’s Funny Boy at the Lightbox were scuttled by the pandemic, they’re still hosting a virtual red carpet and Q&A with the film’s stars. Through December 12 at misaff.com
The 20th edition of the B.C. festival offers a really strong lineup of Canadian cinema, as well as a selection of international programming, all streaming across Canada through the end of the year. (And the festival is splitting its net proceeds 50/50 with the filmmakers, so that’s a nice thing too.) We’ve made some recommendations here. Through December 31 at whistlerfilmfestival.com
Kate Winslet, Saiorse Ronan, Gemma Jones; directed by Francis Lee
Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott, Sarah Gadon; directed by Lawrence Michael Levine
Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Johnny Flynn, Michael Gambon; directed by Adrian Shergold
Documentary directed by Julien Temple
Alivia Clark, Tanner Flood, James Freedson-Jackson; directed by Jeff Roda
Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Celeste O’Connor ; directed by Christopher Landon
Uli Latukefu, Nathaniel Lees, Jau Laga’aia; directed by Keil McNaughton
Diane Keaton, Jeremy Irons, Diego Boneta; directed by Dennis Dugan
Andrea Riseborough, Michael Landes, Shirin Redja; directed by Zeina Durra
Documentary directed by David Osit
Jude Law, Carrie Coon, Michael Culkin; directed by Sean Durkin
Documentary directed by Joel Bakan and Jennifer Abbott
Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh; directed by Brandon Cronenberg
Documentary directed by Weixi Chen, Hao Wu and Anonymous
Hot Docs Ted Rogers Virtual Cinema
Stacy Keach, Vayu O’Donnell, Spencer Garrett; directed by Quinn Armstrong
Reine Swart, Liesl Ahlers, Suraya Rose Santos; directed by Alastair Orr
Aaron Eckhard, Katheryn Winnick, Tommy Lee Jones; directed by April Mullen
Everything coming to streaming platforms this month:
“Robin Williams is Popeye.” That was all Paramount needed to greenlight a big-budget live-action musical vehicle for the beloved comic-strip and cartoon character, with Robert Altman directing, Harry Nilsson writing the songs and Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl – arguably the role she was born to play. The result is one of the most eccentric studio pictures ever made, vividly realized but weird as hell. (Rather than shoot on soundstages, Altman had the studio construct the town of Sweethaven on the Malta coast; it still stands today.) Williams disappears into the role of the squinting, muttering sailor man, Duvall seems genuinely afraid for her life once or twice, and Jules Feiffer’s screenplay flails wildly as it tries to incorporate the petty grudges between Popeye and Bluto (Paul L. Smith), a couple of heavy-handed father-son arcs and an impossibly outsized climax. It’s not good, exactly, but there’s nothing else like it. And it hasn’t looked this good in 40 years: Paramount’s Blu-ray gives Popeye a badly needed HD remastering, offering cleaner picture and sound than any previous home-video presentation. Supplements are modest, with a retrospective featurette built around archival interviews with Altman and Williams being the highlight. It also includes some stills from the 1980 premiere, which looks to have been the last gasp of the 70s. So, again, there’s nothing else like it.