By Anne Brodie
Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s epic – he wrote, directed, stars in, produced, learned the fine art of conducting, played piano and probably much more – is an explosion of imaginaton. The flying, sweeping, microscopic, macroscopic, outre cinematography, the interplay of black and white and colour, and the razor-sharp performances that withstand the power of the camera movements are born in radical exuberance. It’s a heady creation that never eases its rumbling tension and nearly overwhelms the viewer visually, emotionally, and mentally. Steven Spielberg urged Cooper to direct instead of doing it himself and serves as exec producer. Cooper’s career is renewed, and how. Bernstein’s soaring music drives it all, and it’s as breathtaking as any plot. This biopic of composer-conductor and cultural giant Leonard Bernstein (1919 -1980 New York) and his partnership with his wife, actress Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein (radiantly played by Carey Mulligan). Bernstein’s sex life extended to men, but according to the film, she was his raison d’etre, his keenly intellectual, gentle, multi-faceted other half. The film’s transfixing, captivating, and sometimes its power is too much, and you need a breather, but Cooper keeps the emotion blasting, through the strength of the lead characters, intense visuals and sounds, and the film’s utter devotion to a remarkable man. TIFF Bell Lightbox and on Netflix Dec. 20.
Eleven Grammy nominations, supercool status, musical knowledge and talent, and capable of jumping genres in a heartbeat. Jon Batiste a New York street performer turned late-night talk show band leader to debuting American Symphony, his four-year opus, at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall last year. And it didn’t take him long. Matthew Heineman’s documentary reveals the imaginative springs from which Batiste’s gifts were born, the ongoing creation of his musical gift to the city, its shaping, and the look of absolute ecstasy on his face as he composes. Must quote him on why we love music. “We love it because it sounds inevitable. It plays the theme that is unfolding, and it’s always there. We just need to harness it, be open to it”. As Batiste prepares his deeply personal and far-reaching symphony, he finely tunes the forty-minute, four-movement piece. The musicians are in place and are about to play notes and sounds never heard before in Carnegie Hall under his baton. It is experimental, intellectual, soaringly emotional, and jarring, and doesn’t allow too much comfort. All this is going on and Batiste admits, “l’m living the fame and acclaim and music and a double life”. His wife and partner since band camp, Suleika Jaouad, is struggling through a second round of treatment for leukemia, which returned after a period of remission. They go tobogganing, live their lives and hope for the best, but the worst of her treatments take place during the final run-up to Carnegie Hall. It’s an emotional, visually beautiful, gloriously scored documentary, glowing with Batiste’s positivity and Suleika’s grace. Co-produced by Michelle and Obama Barack. On Netflix.
A pair of megawatt stars headline Todd Haynes’ melodrama May December. Julianne Moore plays Gracie, being played in a movie about a real-life scandal, and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth, the actor playing Gracie. She arrives at Gracie’s house to begin studying her. Twenty years prior, Gracie had rocked the nation by having an affair and baby with her 13-year-old Grade 7 student Joe, played by Charles Melton (Riverdale). Their happy present-day household is changing. Joe is 36, and his twins with Gracie are setting off to college. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is a Hollywood star playing Gracie in a movie, and arrives at their home to study her. Elizabeth’s constant presence, questions, and ham-handed prying are taking a toll on Gracie and forcing Joe to look inside himself and question what happened to him as an adolescent. It’s not based on but it’s on familiar territory. Seattle teacher Mary Kay Letourneau was imprisoned twice as a sex offender in the 90s after becoming pregnant by sixth grader, 14-year-old Vili Fualaau. She gave birth to two of his children in prison; they wed on her release and had two more. Melton is the heartbeat of the project. In introspection following Elizabeth’s questions, Joe realises he was abused and manipulated by Gracie. His world goes dark. The easy-going, loving husband and father is in shock and just as Gracie had no conscience about her actions, Elizabeth’s insensitive questions re-traumatise him, and she keeps pressing. Moore’s perfectly sunny on the outside and darkly dangerous inside; as is Elizabeth. But Melton’s the one who gets the emotional showcase and he delivers brilliantly. Joe’s retiring, submissive personality and the wounds he suffers again and again, are the crux of the story, and Melton is perfection. Haynes, as always, delivers provocative, noirish melodrama, circa the 1950s, beautifully nostalgic, creepy, sordid, and, if it weren’t so well done, would be mawkish. But it cuts to the core in a ripely old-fashioned way. Ouch. Watch for Portman’s late-emerging lisp, signifying what? In theatres and on Netflix.
Just for the kids! Eddie Murphy the one-time blue standup comic changes lanes with a heckuva swerve in the Christmas family-friendly Candy Cane Lane. Reginald Hudlin directs Murphy and Tracee Ellis Ross as Chris and Carole who with their kids are caught up in a must-win, a tad nasty neighbourhood Christmas lights display. He’s just been terminated so the prize pack valued at $100K prize is key; no holds barred. Unfortunately, Chris gets on the wrong side of malevolent trickster Christmas elf Pepper (Jillian Bell). She casts a spell to bring the Twelve Days of Christmas to life but it’s not so much a blessing as a curse. Chris launches a counter-offensive to stop Pepper but he’s out-eviled. Much like all his handmade wooden decorations; they seem to mean nothing in the neighbourhood’s plastic fantastic blow-up Christmas decor. As the family does its best to retain the real meaning of Christmas they’re launched into a world of wild world of wizardry, illusion and endless birds. Candy Cane Lane is a nutty kind of a Christmas adventure, Murphy gives it his all to save the holiday, its real meaning and nab the big prize. Watch for Nick Offerman and a couple of goofballs from the local TV station. Strictly for the kids. Prime Video Dec. 1
The Billionaire, The Butler, and The Boyfriend now on Netflix plays right into our sad hunger for reality shows filled with sturm und drang, especially when the players are really rich. “We may not be rich, but we’re happy” kind of superior glee ensues. In this case, the richest woman in the world, L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, a French socialite married to a gay man, had a daughter she didn’t seem to care for, and a young photographer lover named François-Marie Banier. After wooing and flattering her, he was the apple of her eye, he made decisions for her, and managed her money, writing himself plenty of big cheques, sometimes several a day. He was brash and spoke openly about their plans, some not legal, to create more money. When her husband died, Banier asked Bettencourt to adopt him, meaning he would be her direct heir on her death. Daughter Françoise Bettencourt Meyers was tracking his movements with the help of a butler and other staffers. Tape recorders were placed to capture their conversations, and were not discovered during Banier’s routine mansion checks for bugs. Banier helped Bettencourt hide her assets and whispered -on tape- to her he was afraid they would be caught. The staff despised him and worked hard to bring him down, via the recordings. Closer inspection of the couple revealed huge political and ethical bad acts. Bettencourt was slipping into dementia and made him her sole heir. Things get really out of control in this wild and wacky, real-life crime romance series. Whoa! So what’s the connection to Johnny Depp?
Queen Bee launches her concert film Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé in theatres today, a record of her global tour, her reflections on her life, career, and beliefs, and the sources of her confidence. Beyoncé has been the gold standard for performers and artists over the past several years aided by her intense focus on the work, her art and artistic management of every aspect of the show; the woman is a polymath and keen to control her image. Her flawless reputation was dinged this week as some fans protested the film’s release in Israel. On a happier note, daughter Blue Ivy appears onstage, we see Bey without makeup and relaxing (she relaxes?). Big fan Taylor Swift attended the London premiere this week.
So, Taylor Swift. She’s capable of setting off real-life earthquakes, creating a powerful second life in the theatres for music concerts from now on, sharing $55M with her army of employees, and winning hearts of all ages, but Swift’s also singularly talented. I mean, phenomenally talented. Her imagination as seen in her innovations, writing, videos, showmanship and vocal ability is staggering. If you missed Taylor Swift, The Eras Tour Concert Film in theatres, fear not, you can watch in the comfort of your home on Prime Video in Canada as of Dec 13. The film includes three song performances not seen in theatres, so bonus, bonus, bonus. Info here: https://tstheerastour.taylorswift.com