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December Movies? Let’s Go!

Here’s a holiday banquet of cinematic offerings for all tastes and viewing companions.

Dorothy Woodend 9 Dec

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

On an average day, the number of press releases, screeners and invitations to movie media conferences that arrive in my inbox could choke a horse. In the interest of sanity, sometimes I just throw my hands in the air and admit defeat. There’s simply no way to get through that kind of volume, even with all the time in the world.

Quite simply, there are just too many films.

With the holidays nigh, folks have a wee bit of time to slow down and relax. And if the spirit is willing and the body amenable, they can take in a film. Or two. Or 10,000. We here at The Tyee aim to help the cause with a year-end film roundup of the good, the great and the-don’t-bother-unless-you’re-a-sucker-for-punishment. That’s a lot of hyphens. But sailing on.

It’s always tempting to look for trends, connective thematic tissue between different films. For me this year, it boils down to this: women have a lot to say, and men often don’t want them to say it. Also, trains are trouble.

Here are a few filmic suggestions to see you through the holidays and beyond.

To drink, carouse and do some lite murder

If you need a break from the dreariness and doom of the daily news cycle, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery is just the ticket. Really, it could not have come at better moment. The twists and turns of the film’s supremely convoluted narrative will leave your brain pleasantly buzzing, like a honeybee on Quaaludes. Unlike most murder mysteries where the motive and the suspect aren’t hard to spot, this is a riddle wrapped in a caper, steeped in enigma and finished off with a dash of acidic commentary. It’s a bonbon alright, with a dark chewy centre.

At the core of it all is a detective with a hankering for a crisp neckerchief. Benoit Blanc is a wonderful addition to the mystery genre. Not so much hardboiled as perhaps coddled, Daniel Craig’s evident glee in playing the southern-fried sleuth shines as clear as grease on paper plate. If B. Blanc gets a bit overly Foghorn Leghorn, much can be forgiven for the sheer effervescent joy of a film that revels in both silliness and complexity. It’s an interesting combination of flavours, every moment glossed to a high sheen of comedic frolic.

The second edition in what will hopefully be an ongoing series from director Rian Johnson and his star, Glass Onion also had the curious quality of pertaining very much to the current moment. Megalomaniacal billionaires, men’s right influencers with mommy issues, fading film stars, ambitious yet unscrupulous politicians. The film’s wide-ranging cast of characters puts old Agatha Christie to shame. All convene on a sun-drenched Greek island to drink and carouse and do a little lite murdering.

The cast alone is worth the price of admission: there’s Edward Norton, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista and Janelle Monáe, to name only a few. Everyone is having a ball, except the dead folks, I suppose.

After a brief stint in theatres, Onion screens on Netflix as of Dec. 23. This a film best enjoyed with little to no knowledge of its contents. So blank out your brain, tabula rasa-style, and enter with no foreknowledge. Be prepared to be inscribed with all manner of sublime joys, from actors chewing scenery to witty writing that does loop de loops with its own rococo flourishes. What’s that strange feeling? It’s called fun, damn it!

Taking down Harvey Weinstein

The tale of how New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey came together to break the story of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation is pretty dramatic stuff. But there are other things at play in this big splashy version. When to be gentle and allow people to talk about the worst thing that ever happened to them and when to be hard, refusing to be intimidated by bullying, threats and the malicious acts of terrible people. In short, the back-breaking work of investigative journalism.

When Kantor and Twohey teamed up to reveal just how deep and dark and gross the Weinstein rabbit hole really went, things don’t go easily at first. Even powerful and well-connected women didn’t want to come forward, afraid of Weinstein’s ability to squash careers and livelihoods with near impunity. But as the journalists tracked down the women who Weinstein silenced, raw and angry courage emerges like a red flag. We find that the women were forced to sign nondisclosure agreements, that their professional lives were shattered. Many are terrified into a state of paralysis. Under the banner of having no more fucks to give, a few speak out. From there begins an erosion of silence. It is glorious to behold.

She Said follows in the line of other films about newspapers (Spotlight, The Post) but it presents an odd corollary of real life, and some very famous people in the centre of the action. The women who came forward included Ashley Judd, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rose McGowan. Some were celebrities, but many were not. It’s a reminder, that no matter the amount of status and power, that they were all relegated to being victims because they are women. While the drama is occasionally escalated for effect, the real facts are staggering enough.

As the two journalists build their case, chasing down leads, knocking on doors, the full horror is revealed as woman after woman tells a similar story, hotel room encounters that spiralled into physical assaults, threats, coercion and legal gags. After the exposé was published in the the New York Times in the fall of 2017, a further 82 women came forward with their own experiences about the infamous film producer. The story is ongoing.

A damning exploration of faith and silence

The story that inspired Miriam Toews’ book and now Sarah Polley’s film adaptation might destroy any lingering faith you might have had in the goodness of religious men.

Toews’ book took inspiration from an incident in a Mennonite colony where men had been drugging women and raping them while they were unconscious. The physical trauma was blamed on demonic entities or female hysteria. When one of the perpetrators was caught, he named the other men. Polley starts from these raw events but expands into something deeper and more profound as the women gather in a hayloft and decide whether to leave their home or to stay and fight.

The formidable array of talent in the film is strong stuff. Frances McDormand, Claire Foy and Sheila McCarthy lead the way, but even the very youngest members of the cast are remarkable. As the different personalities clash, commiserate and find means of supporting each other even if they don’t entirely agree, humour also emerges. Flinty and tough, it’s a display of their dignity and inalienable personhood.

Polley takes a measured approach to the intricacies of the conversations taking place. The decision to leave the colony represents not only an end to everything the women have known (home, family, livelihood) but also the greater existential threat of being cast out of heaven. Weighty doesn’t quite do it justice. The fact that the women are also illiterate adds another level of complexity. A male colony member, newly returned from the outside world to teach school for the boys, is enlisted to take notes. Without any real information about the world, even finding a map and a means of navigation proves to be an undertaking.

But underneath the set pieces, something else is moving. The gravity of the collective decision is only one thing. The true price of freedom is what is really at stake. Not only freedom from abuse, but the will and space to think and act openly and without constraint.

The bitterness of youth

I don’t really understand why director James Gray wanted to make this film. Was it an amelioration of childhood wounds, a visitation to the not-so-recent past to rectify past sins? Or a bit of bittersweet nostalgia, with an emphasis on the bitter?

Armageddon Time is an odd film, but everyone involved, from Anthony Hopkins to Anne Hathaway to Jeremy Strong, gives it the old college try.

In short, the story concerns the trials and travails of a Jewish family in early 1980s Queens. Ronald Reagan is on the eve of getting elected as U.S. president and 11-year-old Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) is learning hard lessons about race, privilege and power. A decidedly awkward kid, Paul is embroiled in middle-school malaise, trying to be cool, fighting with his parents and staggering along on the tremulous turf between child and teenager. When he makes a new friend named Johnny (Jaylin Webb), things take another turn. Johnny is repeating sixth grade for a second time, much to the displeasure of his teacher. But the two kids bond hard over high jinks, jokes and skipping class.

A few too many shenanigans at school include smoking a doobie in the boys’ room. Then it’s off to private school for Paul. Things aren’t much better here, especially when members of the Trump family show up to speechify at the school assembly. Fred Trump, father of the Donald, is as loathsome as you might expect, but this is mostly just background colour to Paul’s descent into petty larceny.

Despite the support of his maternal grandfather Aaron Rabinowitz (Hopkins), Paul’s inability to be a standup guy, a mensch in the words of his grandpa, give the film a sad and sour quality. If it’s redemption the filmmaker is after, maybe therapy is a better answer.

A Steven Spielberg origin story

The Fabelmans is another exercise in telling your own story, this time from little Steven Spielberg. The origin story of the blockbuster filmmaker involves not only his discovery of the magic of cinema, but also the less-than-perfect crucible that was his family. The Fabelmans (a fictional stand-in for the Spielbergs) are father Burt (Paul Dano), mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Sammy (played at different junctures by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and Gabriel LaBelle). Like real-life Steven Spielberg, Sammy is the oldest brother to sisters Reggie, Natalie and Lisa. The cast is rounded out by family friend and proto Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogen).

The early scenes are easily the most charming. After being taken to a screening of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, with its earthshattering train derailment scene, wee Sammy enters into something akin to a catatonia. He’s caught a bad case of movie fever, it seems. Later, Sammy restages the scene with his toy train set (a Hannukah present) and his father’s camera. It set him on track, like that crazy train, for a future career in movies.

Even as Sammy is feeding his burgeoning passion for cinema, staging film shoots with his classmates, friends and sisters, his family is coming apart at the seams. The headwaters of Sammy’s creative drive come from his mother Mitzi, a human hurricane in a hoop skirt and pageboy haircut. Mitzi abandoned her career as a concert pianist to marry Burt Fabelman and raise a family, but the seeds of creativity are not so easily thwarted. Before long, Mitzi is channelling her wild spirit into an affair that attracts the keen eye of her filmmaker son.

The ending is something of a foregone conclusion, as we all know what happened to Spielberg. The Fabelmans has some charm, but it’s never easy to make films about one’s self or one’s family. Just ask James Gray.

When a Bambauch effort goes off the rails

Train derailments appear to be a thing this year. Another catastrophic accident is at the centre of White Noise, director Noah Baumbach’s film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 hipster classic. The film itself, coming to Netflix Dec. 30 and screening at the VIFF Centre in Vancouver through Dec. 15, is something of trainwreck.

Inside of three minutes, you may have to physically suppress the desire to strangle most of the main characters with your bare hands. Baumbach’s version of the story is an object lesson of sorts: what works on the page doesn’t always translate to the screen.

Outside of a Woody Allen film, people do not talk like this: verbose, self-conscious, arch and then overly arch. There’s a lot of words to choose from. Language performs acrobatic feats, and the effect often feels performative and contrived.

The cast does what they can with it. Adam Driver, sporting a middle-aged paunch and a deeply unfortunate combover, plays Jack Gladney, the family patriarch. His beloved, if slightly addled, wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) with a spiral perm and pack of precocious kids, round out the cast of characters. At his job teaching Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, the worst Jack has to deal with is academic backbiting and competitiveness until a train derailment results in a catastrophic “airborne toxic event” and the entire community is evacuated.

There’s not a lot of tension or suspense in these moments, mostly because the characters don’t even seem all that rattled by events. As they pile into the family station wagon and join the line of other folk fleeing the scene, bickering non-stop (all inconsequential stuff), one mostly wishes that they would stop talking. Really, the title of the film says it all.

Pastoral, political shagging in the English countryside

Who amongst us does not remember thumbing through the pages of D.H. Lawrence’s X-rated novel from 1928 to look up the naughty bits, and even when you found them, trying to piece together what was actually taking place? He put what where? Huh!?

Following a long line of films that came before it, the latest adaptation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover is toothsome in extremis. Even the flapping penis parts are beautifully shot, dappled with rainwater, stippled with dew, as the lovers frolic in flagrante delicto in fields of flowers. This is some classy stuff, y’all. But like most things that are too much fun for their own good, the lovers’ illicit affair is eventually discovered and then all the bummy repercussions ensue.

Director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s version of the tale amps up the class and sexual politics, which adds more interest. But the heart of the story is still the revolutionary ability of lust to upset the applecart, overthrow propriety and bring some heat into the cold, stale air of post-war Britain. The story of the original novel publication is worthy of its own film adaptation. And even today, the tale still packs a punch.

Much has already been made of the two actors (Jack O’Connell and Emma Corrin) baring it all. And to its credit, the film does not spare on the sexy stuff. It brings its A-game to the proceeding, lush, baby, lush, with art direction that is truly ravishing. But it also invests both of the principals with character and pathos, so much so that you will be rooting for these two crazy kids to get together and do the beast with two backs forever.

Check back later for Dorothy Woodend’s roundup of the best documentaries of 2022.  [Tyee]

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