By Anne Brodie
The much anticipated Netflix film Blonde, based on Joyce Carol Oates’ fictional take on Norma Jean Baker / Marilyn Monroe debuts Sept. 28. Oates’ novel is shocking, lurid, and sex-obsessed, as is Andrew Dominik’s nearly three-hour opus. It posits that Norma Jean was victimized from childhood to the end of her short life; an abusive, psychotic mother, absent father, studio moguls and agents who allegedly used her for sex, the men who beat, tricked and humiliated her, all highlighted in garish flashes. Ana de Armas is stellar as Norma Jean and her alter ego Marilyn, the voice, varying accents depending on circumstances and film roles, movement, and appearance; a massive undertaking that nails the shining and tragic centrifugal force that she was. Melodrama becomes painfully lifelike and a suitable style to address the insatiable world Marilyn was forced to occupy. But her literary, professional, and intellectual life was rich, she studied Russian authors to refine her acting abilities and rise above the grasping fray. The phases of her life in partnership – Joe DiMaggio (Bobby Cannavale), known as the Ex-Athlete, Arthur Miller, known as The Playwright” (Adrien Brody), the Juniors ( Xavier Samuel and Evan Williams) and the vile President (Caspar Phillipson) are so sad. Blonde is as over the top and lurid as Marilyn’s image, just what the people demanded of her. In select theatres now, including TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Apple TV+ and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions pay loving tribute to the late actor and iconoclast Sidney Poitier in the warm, engaging, and star-studded documentary Sidney. Poitier became a movie star in an era when Blacks were lucky to get small roles, usually as narrow stereotypes. Raised without electricity, or cars, on Cat Island, The Bahamas, Poitier followed his parents’ values, because he saw the result they got. At thirteen he became impatient and moved to Nassau, then Miami Florida when he was profiled and threatened by police, so he headed north to freedom in New York City. He alternated between dishwasher and aspiring actor at the American Negro Theatre, then the Black Theatre and loved acting which allowed him to “vent frustrations, put my confusion into fictitious characters, (and) I can be many things”. He was told he’d never make it but determined to return one day as a movie star. While he was building a career that would lead to groundbreaking roles in films like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Defiant Ones, and To Sir, With Love, and win an Oscar, Poitier became a civil rights activist, marching, speaking out ( one too many times when supporting his friend Paul Robeson, a Communist sympathizer) while raising a family and six daughters, and aceing that role too. Poitier, Barbra Streisand, and Paul Newman set up a production company and he found another niche – directing comedies. Poiter along with a who’s who of stars, tells his story, and what a natural storyteller he was! and what stories. Reginald Hudlin directs this loving doc.
Animation can be an extremely powerful tool in film storytelling. Eternal Spring, Canada’s submission for the 2023 Oscars in the Best International Feature Film category marries animation and live-action to great effect. Surviving protesters who hijacked China’s state TV news in Changchun City in 2002 tell the story from their perspectives today, banished but safe, far from China. The group took over the station’s live feed to broadcast videos of banned Chinese in Falun Gong meditation and exercise, stating the ancient Buddhist spiritual practice is healthy for the body and mind. The government cracked down on Chinese Falun Going devotees, to preserve Communism’s strict atheistic ideals. Police used extreme violence, surveillance, and torture to force the group to reveal the identities of their co-conspirators. The stories we hear from comic book illustrator Daxiong (Justice League, Star Wars, and animation for Eternal Spring) now safe in his home in Toronto are alarming. Filmmaker Jason Loftus tracked down survivors and learned that many died in police custody. The horrific human toll and political and social realities addressed about China are dispiriting but help us remember the humanity that links us all. Loftus and Daxiong’s work is profoundly moving and without a doubt, Oscar-worthy; the day after Eternal Spring was announced as Canada’s Oscar contender, a government office in Wuhan, China banned the books of Daxiong and other well-known Chinese authors. In theatres.
Tyler Perry’s heartbreaking fact-based drama A Jazzman’s Blues stars performance phenom, Joshua Boone, as Bayou, a descendant of slaves in Georgia. He lives in 1930s segregation, poverty, and abuse at the hands of his father and brother, while his mother (Amirah Vann) tries to keep the peace and protect her sons and herself from her husband; she takes in washing by day and runs her juke joint by night and pays “protection” money to the local white sheriff with little left for the family. The good news is that she and her sons are natural-born musicians and singers and keep the place hopping. Bayou has a love interest in Leanne (Solea Pfeiffer) but her mother encourages her to pass as white and marry into wealth. She does, marrying into a prominent family of racists where she discovers the lengths they will go to hobble POC. Heartbroken Bayou finds work as a headliner in Chicago as his resentful, addicted brother looks on. The danger comes in many diverse forms, some shaped by the times, some by jealousy and despair, and all of it tainted by Jim Crow attitudes. Perry’s provocative film powerfully reminds us these issues still hurt and undermine American culture. On Netflix now.
Director Julian Higgin’s God’s Country opens with a pictorial essay on life in a remote mountain area for over a hundred years – a time of violence and lawlessness. Higgin looks at a moral breakdown in that same wilderness area today. A single law enforcement officer covers 300 square miles. There is little regard for social and legal norms – the manly men of the backwoods do what they please; no one stands up to them. Former New Orleans police officer Sandy (Thandiwe Newton) moved to an isolated home in a gulch for a teaching job at the local university and lives alone. She’s tough and strong and isn’t pleased when hunters park on her property and leaves a stern note to stop. Sandy tells her neighbour and professor friend who brushes her off – “people don’t worry about these things”. Her note has been crumbled into the bloody body of a bird; she repeatedly approaches the trespassers and demands they leave her alone and an arrow is shot into her door. As a former cop, she turns fear into work, and surveilles them, where they live, what bars they frequent, bags evidence, and learns their weak spots. The area’s only working officer resents her asking for help – he’s outmanned, but she hammers hard. They make a disastrous trip to a Christmas tree lot where the crazier bro works and are driven away, suggesting getting the law involved only escalates the situation. She should move to a condo. The war turns increasingly dangerous but she gets tougher. Racism, sexism, abuse, mental illness, duplicitous authorities and neighbours, and the natural end of out-of-control situations frame this quiet, gutsy portrait of a brave woman. Newton’s phenomenal control is reason alone to catch God’s Country. TIFF Bell Lightbox and select theatres.
Disney+ continues to dive deeper into content that pushes the boundaries away from the 99-year-old “Walt Disney” image and a fun example is Hulu’s original series Reboot, premiering Sept. 20. The behind-the-scenes look at the process of building a TV sitcom. This one has a history. It will reunite cast members from the hit but standard, laugh-tracked early ’00s sitcom Step Right Up, fifteen years later. The original players, (Keegan-Michael Key, Judy Greer, Johnny Knoxville), and the little kid now grown played by (Calum Worthy) are summoned to the office of showrunner Gordon (Paul Reiser) to knock around ideas. While Gordon’s combative and shallow, and hopelessly stuck in the past, his daughter Hannah (Rachel Bloom), is a progressive with a gift for subtle writing and creates a nuanced screenplay that was ok’d by the studio. It resets the show as deeper, and Gordon’s apoplectic. He sabotages his daughter at every turn, even hiring old-time comedy writers near death’s door to insert old-fashioned jokes that worked back then. Meanwhile, Greer’s Bree, a former Nordic Duchess, now divorced, is back and penniless and will do whatever it takes for the paycheck, even act opposite Key’s Reed, her former lover. Knoxville’s Clay is desperate to clean up his image for work and fails while Reed, a “Yale-trained actor” tries to turn the sitcom into Chekov. Observational and character humour, dry wit, and the comic battles between artists, producers, onetime lovers, and gulp, a new cast member, make for a terrifically entertaining, juicy backstage series that aims to be ultra-modern but certainly brings to mind those wonderful backstage stories from Hollywood’s past.
Antonio Banderas and Kate Bosworth take a trip to the seedy side in Richard Hughes’ downbeat gang drama The Enforcer in theatres & TVOD. Banderas is Cuda, short for barracuda, a mob enforcer, an assassin with Estelle (Bosworth)’s sex trafficking empire. Stray (Mojean Aria) a young contestant is plucked from an extreme fighting match in Miami and offered a job in Bosworth’s empire, unaware of what it is. Meanwhile, Cuda has second thoughts about upholding the kind of work he does and helps a young runaway (Zolee Griggs), putting her in a hotel for a week, with cash for food only to find her missing, kidnapped by a man connected to Estelle’s ring. He sets out to find her clashing with Bosworth, partnering with Stray, knocking out and killing bad guys, and taking a lot of heat himself. Lots of blood, rage, bad folks, and a high body count including 2 Chainz as a sex trafficker. A cautionary tale in which no one wins.
Josh Duhamel executive produces and stars in Bandit, directed by Canadian director Allan Ungar, a Canadian story, set in Canada, loaded with Canadianisms, but shot in Georgia. It’s the true story of Gilbert Galvan Jr., the “Flying Bandit”, a career criminal who robbed 59 banks and jewelry stores across Canada in the 80s, stole $2.3M and evaded the law for years. He still holds the record for the most consecutive robberies in Canadian history. Galvin seems to have worked on whims in the beginning, but soon ran out of money, was usually broke, and stayed in shelters. He turned to a notorious loan shark Tommy Kay (Mel Gibson) got deeper into debt and ramped up his thefts. Then, posing as Robert Whiteman, a homeless man whose Canadian ID card he bought, he meets and marries social worker Andrea (Elisha Cuthbert). They have a child, and cash is gone, so he resumes his ways after a period of relative anonymous peace in Pembroke, Ontario. One day Kaye shows up out of the blue and this is the one time Galin’s intuition failed him. His evasion required thinking fast (he was nearly captured a few times), makeshift and on-the-spot disguises including a rubber nose that fooled no one, relying on his considerable charm thick and fast, natural grace under pressure. Galavan’s incredible story is comic and cautionary, with weird rebel tongue-in-cheek glee and honestly, you can’t help but like the guy. A grizzled and grey Gibson gives a strong performance in his few moments onscreen. In theatres and on TVOD.
Morgan Matthews’ Railway Children takes us to WWII in England, as city families sent their children to live with strangers in the countryside. There they would be safe from German bombs. Lily (Beau Gadsdon), Pattie (Eden Hamilton), and Ted (Zac Cudby) are sent by their mother, a war widow to a village outside Manchester, telling them to look and behave their best so they will be chosen. Annie, a mother and the local teacher (Sheridan Smith) and her mother (the original 1968 miniseries star Jenny Agutter) agree to take all three. The kids love the fresh smell of clean country air and the space of the green world they’ve never seen. They play, roam, study, and go on adventures freely. Lily discovers Abe (KJ Aikens), a young injured Black American soldier hiding, without food water or medical assistance, and she looks after him. He begs her to keep it secret; he’s running from violent racist bullying in the US army heading to Liverpool and a ship home, but claims to be on a “secret mission”. It tells a timely and engaging story but is marred by quick tonal shifts, incomplete scenes, and overeager, swelling musical telegraphing. In theatres.
Jully Black, Deborah Cox, Kardinal Offishall and more Black artists will appear live on CBC TV Sunday night at the first-ever Legacy Awards, hosted by The Black Academy co-founders Shamier Anderson and Stephan James. Presenters include comedian/actor King Bach, TRH Michaëlle Jean; and media personalities Arisa Cox, Brandon Gonez, Kathleen Newman-Bremang, Amanda Parris, and Odario Williams. Celebrate the Academy’s first nationally televised show to recognise and honour the wealth of Black talent across Canada. The Black Academy is a membership-based, national, year-round Canadian organization that operates at the intersection of Black popular culture and social justice.
At 8 p.m. on CBC TV and CBC Gem.
TVO‘s Great Lakes Untamed series launches Sept 26, a three-part, in-depth portrait of the world’s biggest fresh watershed, the five lakes, Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario and connecting rivers that sit in our backyard, as wide as the Atlantic. The lakes were formed when Ice Age glaciers retreated 20k years ago entirely reshaping the landmass. Lakes were carved out and filled with glacial water to form a vast network of water flowing to the Atlantic, marshlands, new islands, caves, and steep rockfaces, and setting the stage for a powerful ecosystem that connects to wildlife, forests, and weather patterns to create unique life. Its extreme climate that buffets the “inland seas” has proven deadly on Lake Superior. 550 shipwrecks, plus those unaccounted for, lie at the bottom, preserved by the cold, deep, fresh water. Its water takes three centuries to reach the Atlantic. Beavers build dams and create ponds, wolves eat the beavers to release the water to journey to the sea. Each lake is uniquely itself; Lake Michigan is warmer, heavily populated on the south and west shores, and natural on the east with its own unique ecosystem. Lake Huron is dangerous to navigate due to its 30k islands. Lake Erie, the shallow, densely populated and southernmost lake provides the Monarch butterfly with safe migration passage to the south from Point Pelee. At Niagara Falls the water drops fifty metres into Lake Ontario, the smallest and most polluted lake before meeting the Ottawa River, “the sixth Great Lake”, with its fast-flowing fresh water before heading into the Gulf of St Lawrence and the ocean. This is just a tiny bit of what’s to be learned in this beautifully produced, striking series. It begins on Sept. 26th on TVO, TVO Today, and YouTube.
Murdoch Mysteries is back at the Corp and Monday’s episode’s pretty special. It concerns a murder at a literary convention in Toronto attended by, among others lit stars of the day Edith Wharton, Frank L. Baum, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Zane Grey and a certain George Crabtree ( a poster misspelling of our twice published Constable/author George Crabtree’s name). And guess who falls under suspicion? Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery and Rudyard Kipling! Honestly, Murdoch Mysteries continues to rise to the occasion of creativity, imagination, and the love of history. On CBC, CBC Gem.