By Anne Brodie
Jennifer Hudson stars as Aretha Franklin in Respect, the highly anticipated musical biography, the life story of the legendary R&B singer. An outstanding cast of film and Broadway stars – Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Skye Dakota Turner as Young Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige as Dinah Washington – drive this. Director Liesl Tommy makes her feature film debut, and Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri provides the story and Tracey Scott Wilson wrote the screenplay – a shared vision of female strength and grace. How do you like this?
Nine Days is a love letter to the gift of life. Will (Winston Duke) lives in a simple house in the centre of a windswept desert and works a job; he interviews souls waiting to be born human to determine who is suitable, who will make the cut and be granted life. In his dark, book-filled space, he’s well-dressed, and studious, doing the job efficiently and correctly, free of personal contamination from candidates. The winner will fill the vacancy left on earth when a human dies and the losers will enter eternal oblivion. Will knows what to look for; he was human once, but he has no great memories of being so. His assistant Kyo (Benedict Wong) who has never been alive, helps keep him focused, fair, and challenged. Dozens of monitors surveille applicants and former winners as humans, a complete view of behaviours, varied and loaded that sometimes shatter him. A new group of applicants arrives for interviews, some beg, cry, verbally abuse him, and coax him for their shot at life, but he is not easily swayed. He sticks to prior evidence and face-to-face interaction., however, he went off-book and became attached to violin prodigy Amanda and granted her human life, but she throws it away. Emma (Zazie Beetz) appears and contradicts his view of things, a cleansing force. Kyo and Will offer losers a human moment they would like to experience and makes it happen, a walk on a sandy beach, a beer and a BBQ, precious moments. Nine Days is mystical and gut-wrenching, lifting the shadows of non-life and reminding us to appreciate the gift of life and the complexity of our moral existence. You’ll need a moment after to recover and reset. Stunning performances by Duke, Wong and Beetz. With Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård.
Step into a world of tradition, cut-throat competition and risky money in Piedmont, Italy in Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw’s documentary The Truffle Hunters. The main characters, Piero Botto, Sergio Cauda, Maria Cicciùi, buyers, hunters and their dogs carry on a dying but extremely lucrative business, harvesting of the rare Alba white truffle. Day and night, lone figures and their trained and dogs search forest beds in search of the beloved delicacy, the fungi with that magical, soul-filling flavour and aroma. It’s extremely hard physical work, and the competition is fierce considering a good 600-gram specimen might fetch 4000 Euros. The Alba truffle cannot be cultivated so the sense of urgency grows along with the price tag. Hunters keep their areas secret and separate, but amateurs are known to interfere. A good truffle dog is valued at around 6000 Euros, and poisoning by one’s competition is not unexpected. The relationship between master and dog is something to behold, not only are dogs the source of income, they are beloved family members. Then to auction and fine restaurants where customers enjoy the fruits of an often-harrowing journey vérité-style doc reveals the threat of climate change to the fungi and the ages-old industry in this fascinating journey! The settings are the woods, the hunters’ tiny, impoverished homes and the elite circles that benefit from their life’s passion. The hunters are elderly and there was no sign of apprentices entering the biz. The deep respect for nature runs through the film, lending a Malick-y vibe, and a beautiful soundtrack. Much to ponder. https://digital.tiff.net/
The wonderful German character actor Udo Kier plays a hairdresser and drag performer who lives in a retirement home in Sandusky, Ohio in Swan Song, another film that reminds us how precious is life. He’s Pat Pitsenbarger, celebrity hairdresser to the wealthiest ladies in Sandusky including his dear friend and now estranged Rita (Linda Evans). He’s told it was her dying wish that he prepares her for the funeral but he’s miffed because she “left him’ and turns down a $25k disbursement. Still, the lawyer leaves a bag with a sequined dress, pearl shoes and other supplies. Pat’s only friend is a mysterious woman in the home who can’t speak or stand, they share forbidden cigarillos in the staircase. In a fit of pique Pat “runs away” from the home and walks to town and has adventures along the way. People remember him as a star stylist and a woman whose life he changed by making her blonde outfits him with a green pantsuit, pink hat and jewelled brooch. He continues his walk, spirits lifted and decides to “do” Rita. That means finding “her” beauty products that have been discontinued. The home he shared with his longtime deceased lover is torn down, and he visits his gravestone for the first time. The drag bar where he performed is closing that night after 40 years and he takes to the stage. So much change, so much emotion thundering down on Pat on this magical day. . It’s a fun and emotional odyssey and as charming as only Keir could be. Also stars Jennifer Coolidge and Michael Urie. This is the third in filmmaker Todd Stephens’ Sandusky trilogy. On TVOD.
John David Washington is a tourist running for his life in Beckett. He and his girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) are leaving Athens to avoid a protest march and head to the country. He drives through the night and falls asleep, the car hurtles down an embankment and through a house. He crawls out of the wreck to see a woman with a young boy in distress; they run off when he notices his girlfriend lying dead several feet away. Beckett wakes up in hospital with injuries, calls the girl’s father in the U.S. and tells the story and his sighting of the boy to local police. He’s told there was no one else there, the house is abandoned. He walks with difficulty to the crash site, the police detective and a blonde woman show up and shoot and chase him through treacherous mountaintops. A hunter takes him home; the pair show up and kill the man but Beckett escapes to find a beekeeper and calls the US Embassy in Athens. They send him on his way to the train station and miraculously, he makes it only to be attacked by the cop. In Athens, a sympathetic activist (Vickey Krieps) hides him but he’s forced to jump ship and run. Under constant chase, he finds his contact at the Embassy and his troubles explode. He’s in a nightmare of a massive international conspiracy. Director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino knows how to escalate tension and sustains it believably for the first two acts, but lets us down in the third which is repetitive and drawn out. But till then it’s a fun, engaging adventure. Netflix.
Four New York women happen to share a crowded subway car in David Gutnick’s Materna that changes their lives. Assol Abdullina, Jade Eshete, Kate Lyn Sheil and Lindsay Burdge sit quietly focusing on their current situations when a stranger melts down, verbally abusing and threatening them. We follow the fraught situation as the mundane gives way to anxiety, even terror. The ride suddenly feels unsafe. Each has pre-existing negativity, an unwanted pregnancy, mistrust of men, overbearing mothers, nightmares, isolation, and general malaise now in sharp focus as they face danger. The man fires a gun. One of the women has blown an audition, another is a political and social conservative, whose brother played by Rory Culkin, tries to talk sense to her as he works on his police brutality documentary. Mein Kampf is cited. Her child tells her he’s scared of her. Another of the women returns home to Kyrgyzstan for her father’s funeral. She tries to liberate her mother and grandmother but they aren’t having it. The three visit the tree on which he hung himself and feel peace and unity. She returns to New York and gets on a subway … TVOD/Digital
Here is the dictionary definition of Naked Singularity – “In general relativity, a naked singularity is a hypothetical gravitational singularity without an event horizon. Hence, objects inside the event horizon—including the singularity itself—can not be directly observed. A naked singularity, by contrast, would be observable from the outside.” This sums up the theme, structure and energy behind Chase Palmer’s oddball crime heist. John Boyega and Olivia Cooke, both extraordinary British actors play New Yorkers convincingly and effortlessly. He’s Casi, a public defence lawyer who sees gaping holes in the justice system, holes that are getting bigger. Linda Lavin plays the judge in his courtroom and she’s the personification of brutal contempt for fair play. His friend (Tim Blake Nelson) says it’s not just in the courtroom, that “bindings holding the universe are unravelling”. The thermometer reads 150 degrees, police, law, plans and human things are rupturing and the city’s often in a blackout. Title cards read 11, 10, 5 Days to Collapse. Against this backdrop is a complicated heist by a multitude of players, all seeking an impounded car crammed with heroin and money. Olivia Cooke plays a clerk at the impound lot and she’s looking for a way out, any way. A bad Tinder date morphs into her next chapter; the creep wants her to pave the way to the heroin for a cut. Meanwhile, she tells Casi, her lawyer on a prior beef what’s going down. Also seeking the drugs is an Orthodox Jewish gang, at least two other gangs, and complications muddying the waters. Naked Singularity and all. Feverish and fast, it salutes the decaying NYC of a couple of decades back. Linda Lavin’s still got it. Ridley Scott, Dick Wolf produced, based on the PEN prize-winning novel A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava, a former Manhattan District Attorney. TVOD.
If there was ever a compelling argument to avoid jail time, the riveting BritBox miniseries Time is it. You’ll be scared straight. Its epic highs and lows are almost Shakespearan, as two men face life-threatening danger on the inside. One is Mark (Sean Bean) a middle-aged former teacher serving time for accidentally killing a cyclist, whose cellmate, an AIDS victim, endanger him by repeatedly cutting himself. Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) is a compassionate prison guard who stands alone in the understaffed prison. Their world is an awful place where threats, beatings and every kind of abuse are daily events, as uncaring guards look on. Mark’s haunted by what he did; incarceration is his moral duty. He is happy to serve his time but that vulnerability makes him the target of bullies. Eric tries to help but he can’t be there 24/7. When a nasty piece of work discovers Eric’s son is now an inmate he is also vulnerable and forced to carry out bad deeds to keep his son safe. Siobhan Finneran is the experienced prison chaplain working tirelessly to bridge gaps and keep the men above water, in a wonderful performance. Meanwhile, Mark’s wife wants a divorce and his father is dying. Spare, efficient and laser-focused, Time is comprised of three feature-length episodes that bristle with such intensity it could scare a person straight. Special shoutouts to Bean and Graham who knock their performances up and out over the wall. Absolutely breathtaking.
It doesn’t feel at all like a Big House. Sisters Claire and Ali (Ellie Reid and Paige Collins) are throwing a small bash at their father’s home while he’s away. The guy Claires attracted to and Ali’s boyfriend are present and a third woman is expected on Ali’s invitation, after meeting on an open relationship app. This ironically “big” house doesn’t know what’s about to hit it; it will be small and bubbling over in this in-your-face farce. Claire’s fiance unexpectedly shows up as she is fully engaged in an affair with the cute guy. All are privy to all and either choose not to acknowledge or open up the floor to honest and frank discussion, instead tippy-toeing around pretending nothing’s weird. It’s cramped on every level. It feels like a tiny stage play and must have been shot quickly, to support the whiplash confusion. There is no escape from verbal missiles that zing off the walls. People keep saying they’re leaving and you want them to leave, but no one does, and more people show up. Kudos to the actors and crew for nailing that edgy vibe and believable performances. Funny sidebars – arguments about how to score tomato bottoms are as frantic as the doublecrosses and betrayals going on. TVOD.
Søren Sveistrup’s Forbrydelsen or The Killing, the excellent 2007 – 2012 Swedish detective series from which sprang the American imitation The Killing is finally available in North America on Topic. Starring Mads’ brother Lars Mikkelsen and Sofie Gråbøl, it concerns the discovery of a young woman’s bloody belongings in a deep forest near Copenhagen. Detective Sarah Lund works through the night on the case, as she’s due in Sweden that day – she’s been promoted, but she’s committed to finding the girl called Nanna, who has now been reported missing. Lund comes across a cabin with an axe and hanged sex doll and looks at men who fit certain criminal profiles. The suspect list grows rapidly, right up to the halls of justice. The detective replacing Lund joins the investigation; he’s aggressive and rude and wants her out but puts his feelings aside to question the woman’s family, her schoolmates and local weirdos with criminal histories. Divers discover Nanna’s body in a car submerged in a river, a car that is traced to Troels Hartmann’s office. He’s running for Mayor. We get a picture of him as a man of contrasts, an upright protector of the public interest, an adulterer and a man who protects his staff. The series takes whiplash twists and turns with red herrings for fun and a dynamic, natural build-up of suspense. Made at the height of the Nordic noir craze and an excellent example of it.
Amazon‘s anthology series Modern Love, inspired by the New York Times column of the same name, is in Season 2 now. It’s expanded to be a more inclusive and diverse series, better reflecting contemporary society. Love is the universal story and so we see it appear and take its course internationally. There’s even a story this season about – gasp – older people. the mature themes include obstacles of note, starting with The Night Girl and the Day Boy. Zoe Chao plays a Manhattan woman whose life takes place at night. She has a condition called delayed sleep phase syndrome and it all gets a bit dark here, does it exist? Anyhoo, she meets Day Boy (Gbenga Akinnagbewith) in a late-night diner they go on late-night dates to accommodate her and he’s sleep-deprived and wonders if she’s being truthful. The syndrome affects her life in many ways: she’s never seen the sun and he appreciates “how gentle and sweet the night can be” but it’s wearing him out. Second Embrace finds an estranged London couple played by Sophie Okonedo and Tobias Menzies sharing child-raising duties. They share a warm relationship but one day reminiscing about the past things get hot. He describes her as the woman of his dreams and buys her a ring he intends to present on a dinner date. Which is when she announces she has breast cancer. Neil Young’s soulful Only Love Can Break Your Heart holds a keening atmosphere throughout. Garrett Hedlund and Anna Paquin star in In the Waiting Room of Estranged Spouses who discover as they wait that their spouses are having an affair. Strangers in a Train stars Kit Harington and Lucy Boyntons’ whose characters meet on a train from Dublin to Galway during the pandemic. There’s a spark and fun conversation and they plan to meet at the station a few weeks hence. No exchange of numbers, just a promise to do it old school. They leave for the station meeting but because of the pandemic, the stations and trains are closed. This is the funniest, most hopeful and charming episode, lifted by dry Irish humour and goodwill. And Miranda Richardson is Boynton’s blunt mother. Another great season!
The Indigiqueer thriller, kwêskosîw (She Whistles), directed and written by Thirza Cuthand, and shot in Toronto will screen at the Canadian Fantasia Film Festival and Outfest LA this month. The short film, starring Sera-Lys McArthur and Aidan Devine, concerns the tragedy of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls. Stephanie, a 2-Spirit nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) woman leaves a club in a cab late at night; she’s been thinking about her missing mother when it becomes clear the racist white male driver is dangerous and escalating. She whistles, remembering an old tradition that if you whistle at the Northern Lights, ancestors will come and take you away. Kwêskosîw (She Whistles) premiered at the Wairoa Maori Film Festival in New Zealand and won the Mana Advancement of Indigenous Rights award. It also won the Short Subject Fiction Golden Sheaf Award at Yorkton and was produced by McArthur’s Fanning Feathers production company.