OSCAR FAVOURITES, THE MALE GAZE PROBLEM, A PLUCKY DETECTIVE, A LONE WOLF AND COCKTAILS, BABY, IN THE HAMMER AND SICILY!
By Anne Brodie
Seems to me that Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Barry Keoghan are Oscar nom shoe-ins for their gut-wrenching performances in The Banshees of Inisherin. They bring to life a deadly episode in a war of wills that can’t be won when Colm (Gleeson) suddenly turns on his lifelong friend Pádraic (Farrell) for no apparent reason. They live on one of the isolated Aran Islands, with rocky cliffs facing the Atlantic; people are tight there, they’ve shaped their lives removed from the world and are dependent on one another and their beloved workhorses, dogs, and ponies. One day in 1923 Colm refuses to engage with Pádraic, giving no reason and threatening to cut off his own fingers if he tries to speak to him again. Pádraic believes it’s an April Fool’s joke, he persists, befuddled, and he’s rejected. He tries again, and the same outcome, and that’s when Colm throws his first bloody severed finger at his door. Pádraic’s sister, the local barkeep, a shrouded elderly soothsayer and townsfolk tell him to stay away from Colm, but he needs answers; he’s told he’s done and said nothing wrong, that Colm wants peace and quiet. Their struggle eventually overwhelms the community, and dark deeds and heartbreak come of it. Inisherin’s foggy, dangerous climate and geography mirror the action, and dark natures take over. Titanic performances, a superb script by director Martin McDonagh and the living, breathing beauty of the island contribute to the film’s Shakespearean qualities. In theatres.
Where to start with the haunting, maddening thriller Decision To Leave, South Korea’s Official Oscar Selection for International Feature Film, from Park Chan-Wook? It’s a brainteaser and an eloquent reimagining of the way people can be represented on-screen, a genius formula heightened by inventive cinematography and editing. It’s a big, revolutionary experience, yet it has a whiff of the past in touches of Hitchcock’s playful suspense and owes a debt to the noirest of noir. Tang Wei is Seo-rae, newly a widow, and Park Hae-il (Memories of Murder) is Detective Hae-jun. He’s investigating the death of her husband, an experienced climber who fell or was pushed off an impossibly dangerous rock formation. His widow simply states that he died as he wished, that he’s dead “at last”. She claims he abused her, tattooing his name on her “like a cow”, while others describe her as the dominant. The thing is Seo-rae is a beauty and easily manipulates the detective. He is in love with her, or obsessed, and will leave his wife because he can’t focus on anything but his infatuation. He surveilles Seo-rae and even as his department believes she killed her husband, he advises her to throw her phone in the ocean, while he handcuffs and arrests her. He goes against everything he knows to be right and true, obeying only his runaway emotions, while she plays him. He tells her the order of insects that feast on dead bodies, reminding us that death is present. They meet years later, she introduces him to her new husband who is soon dead under mysterious circumstances. Unique camera angles and reflected shots, shots through objects, unexpected edits, and disruptions tell us there is no hard and fast truth. As we stagger around looking for hard facts, we fall under the spell of their strange relationship. Park Chan-Wook’s elaborate, masterful story tricks us and stays just out of our grip, teasing us into helpless submission. TIFF Bell Lightbox and select theatres.
Margaret Brown’s stunning documentary Descendant, now on Netflix with help from the Obamas, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter is about conflict and triumph. The African slave trade was banned in the US in 1806, but in 1860, in Mobile Alabama, human trafficker, and businessman Timothy Meaher, who owned most of the land for miles along the Mobile River made an outrageous, illegal, and inhumane bet. He wagered his captain could sail to Africa, buy 100 slaves, bring them back and get away with it. He won. He released his human cargo into a field and left them there for two weeks, after exploding and sinking the only evidence, his ship, The Clotilda. The slaves formed Africatown and managed to thrive. But huge holes were missing, and succeeding generations have no idea where they came from or who they are. They formed the descendants and the search was on for the sunken hull, in order to prove the Meahers’ guilt, get an admission from his family, an apology, and reparations. Meanwhile, Africatown was soon surrounded on all sides by toxic heavy industry, resulting in a high rate of cancer. National Geographic funded a state-of-the-art search and in May 2019, The Clotilda was found underwater on property clearly marked as Meaher’s. The discovery was as traumatic as the oral history of suffering and damage done to the slaves and their descendants. A telling moment when a video reveal of The Clotilde with 100 Africans depicted, naked and crammed in the ship’s hull brought rousing clapping from white attendees, while the Blacks wept. The clapping ends suddenly. Dozens of stories told, like that of the last slave sent to America, Cudjoe Lewis ( Zora Neale Hurston’s powerful book Barracoon) seen in old photos and passed down by word of mouth. The Descendants are making progress but it’s a long tough road that has taken them to Washington DC and into the Smithsonian Institution. This undeniable, often unbearable, and deeply disturbing story is told with dignity, and it rings a bell that may just result in amends for 140 years of injustice related to 400 years before that. Breathtaking.
Nina Menkes’ extraordinary doc Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power puts into words what we have witnessed in movies since the beginning of time and it’s an eye-opener. Menkes illustrates in no uncertain terms the motion picture code and detriment of the “male gaze”. No secret that women have been objectified in film across the board in ways you won’t be able to ignore once you see this doc. Hundreds of clips of women’s bodies prove the overriding sexuality required of them in film, the angles, framing, lighting, and predatory camera movement. These factors make objects of women “for the use, support, and pleasure of male subjects”, says Menkes. “Shot design is gendered” on a subconscious level for audiences, and she parses the harm it causes. Women to be looked at, the camera is complicit with its body pans, slo-mo, and special lighting unlike shots of men, whose bodies generally aren’t seen, affirming patriarchal, sexist propaganda. Female filmmakers like Sally Potter, Agnes Varda, Canada’s Sarah Polley, and others show women in full focus, while Sofia Coppola and others have resorted to the male gaze. We meet artists who were punished for defying the traditions of patriarchy who lost their careers, and rare exceptions to the rule in films made by men. Interviewees Julie Dash, Penelope Spheeris, Charlyne Yi, Joey Soloway, Catherine Hardwicke, Eliza Hittman, and Rosanna Arquette discuss how the male gaze factored in their determination to look differently. Executive producers Tim Disney, Susan Disney Lord and Abigail Disney and Menkes deconstruct this time-“honoured” filmmaking tool, it’s out there, and we know there are options. But don’t count on change. Habits are hard to break in Hollywood. Why change? Mendes shows how the male gaze in film intersects with the “twin epidemics” of sexual abuse and assault and employment discrimination in the film industry. Once you see this doc, you won’t be able to unsee it. In select theatres in Vancouver and Toronto, and on Nov. 1 in Montreal. Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power was awarded the Seal of Female Empowerment by one of my organisations, the Critics Choice.
Speaking of the male gaze, ironically I happened to watch the neo-noir Find Her right after watching Brainwashed, and the classic male gaze tropes used for women’s detriment were in full swing. And guess who the villains are? Written, produced by, and starring Nick McCallum and shot in Louisiana and Florida partners us with a former detective, and addict on a mission to find Sloane a young woman who disappeared from her rural hometown. He shows up and lets it be known what he’s doing and the wagons circle, locals refusing to engage. Everyone in that burg has something to hide. He doggedly pursues the truth and has an affair with a very young woman who is subjected to the entire dogma of the male gaze. A woman who is a weapons expert who is photographed and developed as a man would be. So that’s interesting. TVOD.
Elizabeth Banks’ housewife and mother Joy, circa 1968 is like many suburban white American moms back then. Hubby (Chris Messina) rules the roost and limits her mobility and she accepts it. She raises her daughters and runs the home within the narrow scope of the time, and must explain her movements when she’s away from them. Joy becomes pregnant but it’s ectopic and the birth could kill her, the child, or both. Doctors refuse to grant a “therapeutic termination”, so she tries another tack, pretending to be suicidal. Nothing. She briefly considers throwing herself down the stairs, an extreme measure, among others, practiced in restrictive times. One day she spies a poster inviting stressed pregnant women to Call Jane. She makes an appointment in a well-disguised and guarded medical office staffed by women who all go by Jane, including a nun (Aida Turturro) and the plain-spoken leader Virginia (Sigourney Weaver). A young man (Cory Michael Smith) performs her abortion and she decides to help women and girls caught in the life-altering bind she’d been in. Joy goes undercover so the family doesn’t find out and rises in the ranks. And then she makes a radical decision. Her bravery counts for a lot and her actions free her from the mind-numbing life she’d been leading. I like the story, simply told with no distracting frills, an ordinary woman making change in her community by giving women second chances. Call Jane was an underground service for women in pre-Roe USA. In select theatres.
The vacation continues with The White Lotus, Season 2, Mike White’s scathing series about rich people on holiday. This time, we’re in a White Lotus spa hotel on the Sicilian coast; the only cast holdovers from S1 are Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya and Jon Gries as her husband Greg. The new cast includes Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, Michael Imperioli, Aubrey Plaza, Will Sharp, Theo James, Meghann Fahy, Tom Holland, and Haley Lu Richardson but their problems are the same. No one gets along with anyone. Plaza and Sharpe are husband and wife who joined old friends, the obnoxious James and Fahy, his patient but clear-eyed wife. James’ character is a trickster, insulting and demeaning people to their faces while smiling and pretending friendship. Plaza’s onto him, 100%. She’s the one person he can’t dominate either by stripping in her room or grabbing her underwater in the ocean. Abraham, Imperioli and his series son played by Adam DiMarco are extremely uncomfortable with one another. Sr. is a serial sexual harasser, Jr., a sex addict who puts up two hookers for his use during their week-long stay, and his son who sees but only wants only the best for everyone. The thing about the White Lotus brand concept is that it’s addictive. The colourful, beautiful, rich characters, outrageous plot twists, secrets and betrayals, the haute luxury hotel, and displays of wealth. But it’s also deeply cynical – these people are fortunate but all they can do is destroy, lie and steal. Fortunately, Plaza’s character is a palate cleanser, but how long can she carry on being an outlier? It’s a soap opera after all. I do love that opening titles sequence with the lewd Georgian wallpaper, stories within stories, none of them especially life-affirming – like the series. Pretty, though. Sunday night on Crave.
BritBox Original Karen Pirie takes us to St-Andrews, Scotland on the eastern seacoast where Prince Willam and Kate Middleton met, home of the world’s most famous and historic golf club. Pirie (Lauren Lyle), Val McDermid’s fictional detective in the novel A Distant Echo, has landed an ace job, heading up the cold case department at the local constabulary. Her excitement turns to disappointment when she discovers she was put in the position for optics’ sake so she determines to outshine the men and resist patriarchy. Karen’s first case, the unsolved murder 25 years earlier of Rosie a 19-year-old barmaid, has been allowed to lapse. Three young men were taken in at the time, they’d found her body, they were covered in blood and their answers were too pat. All four were at the pub that evening when Rosie slipped out to meet an unknown person but nothing could be proved; because they weren’t charged their names were never released. Karen dubs them the Historian, the Artist, and the Medic as adults and we see what has become of them and their feelings about that night. Also in play, Rosie’s now adult brothers, a rough lot who threaten Karen’s colleague and on-again-off-again lover DS Phil Parhatka (Zach Wyatt). A podcaster sparks the reopening of the case naming the three suspects, and Karen and Phil must rush to protect them and get to the truth of that night before someone’s killed. This gripping and charged three-parter is well worth a binge.
Steve Coogan’s achingly uncomfortable comedy is in full swing in CBC Gem‘s series Chivalry. Once again he sets his story under the bell jar of the film industry, this time in Hollywood. He’s Cameron McNeil, a big shot, and his film A Little Death, needs reshoots because it’s not working. We find him chatting up two nubile actresses, as usual, when he’s interrupted by the new director Bobby, played by co-writer Sarah Solemani. It’s clear they are philosophical opposites, he’s an old-fashioned misogynist and she’s a progressive. They join the arrogant director (Djilali Rez-Kallahr) whose work they are to correct; he has a temper tantrum and dies on the spot. Later, they’re reshooting a sex scene with temperamental sexpot star Lark (Sienna Miller) and a time-wasting, smug stand-in (Richard Fleeshman) who Bobby later decimates with a “quit the business” speech, and lives to regret. There are many fine absurd, comic touches and subtleties – listen closely – and a fun group of cameos by among others, Paul Rudd, Wanda Sykes, John C. Reilly, and Peter Stormare. An intern who is a production spy knows more than the filmmakers and there’s a rumour that the studio is seeking a Saudi Arabian buyout. Coogan’s humour can grate after a while, as ever. A bit too uncomfortable.
Netflix‘ new reality series Drink Masters with hosts Tone Bell, “I’m here because Anthony Anderson was busy”, Julie Reiner and Toronto’s Frankie Solarik have a job to do. These highly regarded “mixologists” know their stuff and they must look, taste, and judge innovative and flavourful cocktails created by aspiring mixology greats competing for a $100K prize. The judges warn contestants they’ve seen it all and demand something absolutely fresh to continue to the next stages. Says one “People see who I am through my cocktails”. I did not know that was a thing. In fact, I don’t drink hard liquor so the series opened my eyes to the vast array of ingredients, methods, and inventive thrust that come into play. Ingredients used include spruce, chocolate, agave, herbs, mushrooms, smoke, stewed apples, chilli, saffron, beets, smoked foam, tea, licorice, rose, and even durian – and the presentations range from unappealing to stunning, drinks sitting on their own landscapes, for heaven’s sake. The series adds an extra element, the two bottom contestants get to compete in a last-minute Mix-Off to stay in the game. The complexity of the art of mixology, and the knowledge of flavours and sources is impressive and you’ll learn while having a great time. And guess what? It films in Hamilton!
Island of the Sea Wolves, a new Netflix documentary series is filled with phenomenal footage of the non-human residents of Vancouver Island. Witnessing an otter mum whose baby floats on the surface, leave him for a few moments to go deep into the water for food, above the water, checking for danger, the moment she takes the dive and from underwater, the dive breaks through as cameras follow her work. A lone pregnant female wolf, shunned by the female alpha and the rest of her pack, desperately searches for scarce food which is hard to come by. But she is a sea wolf and must swim to an island where the pickings are easier. Bald eagles fight to protect their babies high up in lofty spruce and bring them morsels. One grabs a crab but it fights back, squeezing his face with those strong pincers and escaping. The timed parade of migrating and native creatures is spectacular through the spring awakening – raccoons, bears, hummingbirds with iridescent pink throats, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, seals, gray whales, killer whales, Pacific herring, black bears, new babies, emerging from winter lairs and on the universal hungry hunt. How on earth do they get these intimate shots you’ll ask yourself. High tech, time and patience – and the results are stunning, intimate shots of wildlife and the natural beauty of the Island and ocean. Three episodes cover wildlife ecosystems over the course of a year with fascinating revelations, drama, and joy told vis top-notch photography. We are so lucky to have the ways and means of witnessing this life as never before. Will Arnett narrates a script by David Fowler.
Apparently a new push by cruciverbalists – crossword puzzle creators – to demand editors modernize the game with an eye to equality, diversity, queer life, modern events and movements has infuriated Donald Trump, Jr. who demands to know if “everything has to be woke”. Well, Donny, yes. Welcome to 2022 as people work toward enlightenment and inclusion, i.e., a better society. The doc Across and Down on The Passionate Eye on CBC TV and CBC Gem tonight reveals the sad state of affairs of crosswords, stuck in a conservative mire of baseball players from 100 years ago while contemporary issues like gender identity, social reform, and progress are unheard. Millions of solvers rely on the crossword thrills on a daily basis and the good news is that women, Indigenous, Black, people of colour, and LGBTQ2SIA+ are now writing and puzzling. Interviews with cruciverbalists, regular folk from across the US and Canada with a knack for the 15 x 15 obsession, have their own obsession, getting published in the Cruciverbalist’s Dream, The New York Times. interesting and right on target.