Caoilinn Springall and George Clooney in The Midnight Sky
By Anne Brodie
Looks like Nomadland’s Frances McDormand has fierce competition for all the Best Actress awards in Viola Davis. Davis is unrecognizable as 20’s blues icon Ma Rainey, in George C. Wolfe’s film adaptation of August Wilson’s Broadway hit play Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ma is big, bold, entitled, confident and blowsy, the iconic Southern singer who claimed to have invented the term ”the blues” before steamrolling her way into music history. Its 1927 and Ma and her band (Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, Michael Potts and in a stellar performance the late Chadwick Boseman) are recording in a sweltering studio. White producers try to control and cajole her to do things their way, but Ma won’t have it. She’s wary of this young upstart cornetist (Boseman) who seduces Ma’s girlfriend and only plays his way. Ma’s perfectionism and refusal to bow down is her life’s story crystallised in this close to perfect jewel of a film. Her struggle for relevance, equality, and love in the Jim Crow south, and in the studio is deep. Revelations, recriminations, truth telling and glorious, stirring music lift this wonder, the latest in Denzel Washington’s film adaptations of Wilson’s plays. Netflix.
Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round starring Mads Mikkelsen is Denmark’s 2021 Oscar’s Best International Feature Film submission. Four middle aged men who teach in the same school undertake an experiment. Norwegian psychologist Finn Skårderud theorized that men are born with a deficiency of alcohol in their blood and that a steady flow of it increases happiness and creativity. They tell their families but not the school, where they’re drunk almost all the time, teaching and advising students. It’s all jolly fun for a while, they perceive themselves as better, and good things come of it – MM’s more relaxed and appealing to his students, and he reconnects with his wife and children. But naturally the experiment lets them in for a world of stumblebum humiliation and hurt. Interesting story, a well-made made cautionary tale for grownups with a strange elegance. Mikkelsen, a former jazz ballet dancer, lifts it higher in every way. On VOD and Digital and in some theatres in Vancouver, Ottawa, Kingston, Saskatoon and Regina. Also available now on digital TIFF Bell Lightbox.
George Clooney directs and stars in Netflix’ end of days drama The Midnight Sky, an ambitious project meant to chill, literally and figuratively. He’s a scientist working in Barbeau Observatory Arctic, February 2049. Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Kyle Chandler, and Tiffany Boone are astronauts returning to earth after years on a planet that sustains human life. They don’t know that earth is in full-on crisis as clouds of toxins, a radioactive pandemic swallows it up. Clooney is left alone when his colleagues rush to go south to their homes, but a little girl (Caoilinn Springall) is forgotten. He must care for her and get to a remote station to warn the astronauts to turn back. They endure raging Arctic storms as they try to outrun the clouds and get station. Clooney experiments with time travel and memory subplots that unite the disparate worlds of the spaceship interior and earth’s harshest place. Much sturm and drang and urgency, as the world careens to its end due to man man climate change. Clooney’s dark study offers a ray of hope. its not his greatest film, it’s uneven and dense, likely due to it being cut on completion of scenes. But it is a noble attempt and acknowledgement of climate crisis. A fascinating concept by novelist Lily Brooks-Dalton in her book Good Morning, Midnight.
Writer/director John Patrick Shanley (Doubt, Moonstruck) puts his toe in new waters in Wild Mountain Thyme, a love story set in an idyllic rural corner of Ireland, that spans generations, and cultural and familial bonds. An interesting cast, Emily Blunt, Jamie Dornan, Jon Hamm, Dearbhla Molloy and Christopher Walken seem at home in this sweet, honest film. Walken’s the narrator, speaking from the grave telling the story of the impossible romance between his son and the woman next door. The warring Muldoons and Rileys, next door neighbour farmers for as long as anyone remembers hit a tipping point. Rosemary Muldoon (Blunt) has been secretly in love with Anthony Riley (Dornan) and vice versa since they were children; they’re in their thirties now, but bad blood between their parents (Dearbhla Molloy and Christopher Walken) created a toxic environment between them. Both are concerned about the future of their farms as their families age, when along comes Rosemary’s distant cousin (Jon Hamm) in a Rolls Royce to buy her out. He’s a fancy American with a fantasy of running a farm in Ireland, and he encourages her to grab her dream, and not in the way he expected. Shanley’s lilting poetic script and the cast’s earnest delivery are soul soothing, as is the rural life envisioned here, but there’s a long row to hoe before the ageing would-be lovers see things clearly. Bonus – Dornan and Blunt sing a stirring traditional ballad in the pub! Sweet but not saccharin, a bit corny, and loaded with Ireland’s green appeal. Dec 22 VOD
Alicia Witt, the “child prodigy” actor who played Cybill Sheppard’s daughter in Cybill stars in a bit of fun romantic fluff in Modern Persuasion, loosely based on Jane Austen’s last novel, but set in a contemporary Manhattan PR firm. Witt is Wren an executive workaholic approaching forty and single, with a cat, surrounded by eager young women who really riff on being millennial, and want her to find a man. Wren’s pushy aunt (Bebe Neuwirth) has just the one for her. Wren is wary of men after a breakup years prior when lo and behold, doesn’t he show up to work with her firm? As in the novel, the crew heads off for a weekend of relaxation by the sea (Lyme Regis replaced by the Hamptons). It’s so pre-pandemic party hearty New York a time when we wore hard clothes and shoes and dressed to seduce, show power and impress. It’s fun and breezy, and an eyeful, co- directed by Jonathan Lisecki and Alex Appel . On Digital and VOD.
Mira’s Nair and Andrew Davis’s epic adaptation of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, one of the longest novels in the English language is a gloriously colourful period piece about four families, set in India’s first days of independence. University student Lata is fulfilling her parents’ requirements for her, studying and awaiting an arranged marriage to a “suitable boy”. It’s not just the country that’s coming of age, Lata is as well, she has a rebellious spirit and she’s thirsty for education, life experience and passionate love. She meets this guy who loves learning, new ideas and, perhaps Lata. Meanwhile, Maan has fallen for a courtesan, leaving him vulnerable to family and community banishment. Against the backdrop of four family sagas is the fabric is political change and religious strife; a mosque deliberately built next door to an ancient Hindu temple sparks ancient enmity and bloodshed. There’s much afoot in this sprawling, ambitious series on Acorn now, so for warm temps, hot colours and plenty of passion, this is the pandemic winter series to go to. Stars Tanya Maniktala, Ishaan Khattar and Mahira Kakkar.
Valley of Tears on Hollywood Suite is the most expensive Israeli TV series of all time, and it shows. The incredibly lifelike and terrifying battle scenes, period details and performances are painstakingly rendered. The fact-based series goes deep inside the devastating events of Oct 6th, 1973, the first day of the Yom Kippur War when Syria and Egypt joined forces to launch a bombing campaign against Israel to “push it into the sea”. They chose to do so on the holiest day of the Jewish year when military staff was heading home for the holidays. We follow three main characters and a gifted young intelligence office who repeatedly warns the soldiers he’d heard evidence an attack was coming. They ignore him; they can’t believe they’d be attacked on Yom Kippur. Many officers’ lives are lost the first day but military backup is on the way. They’re severely outmanned and hope fades, but tenacious tank runners manage to even the score… for a time. Strong stuff beautifully produced, starring Joey Vahedi, Omer Perelman Striks and Lior Ashkenazi. Valley of Tears premiere Dec 19 with two episodes, and more each Saturday, after which the series will be available On Demand.
Bet you still haven’t had enough of Meryl Streep following her Merylness’ turns in Let Them All Talk and The Prom. Streep narrates the documentary Museum Town, the story of North Adams, Massachusetts. It was a depressed Berkshires town that closed when its one big employer left, empty Main Street, hard times and hopelessness. But North Adams has had its fairy-tale ending. A wealthy out of towner decided that the 24-building factory now empty, would be the perfect place to set up the biggest contemporary art space in the world. In tiny, broken down rural North Adams! Thirty years later, it’s a thriving reality, the MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) after years of struggle and skepticism. Renowned artists show their supersized works within, including Streep’s husband Don Gummer, Laurie Anderson, John Barrett, Simeon Bruner, Nic Cave and David Byrne. It’s now a world renowned space. Risk’s reward! As for the doubting locals, they now work and volunteer at MASS MoCA and they’re learning about contemporary art. Director Jennifer Trainer’s fascinating doc is available in virtual theatres.
Stars from Harry Potter, Hollyoaks and Coronation Street star in the first ever Live, Virtual & Interactive Panto Live Cinderella Pantomime bring the ages old British Christmas pantomime tradition to your living room. Chris Rankin, Jessica Ellis (Hollyoaks) and Kimberly Hart-Simpson, Steve Fortune and Cuan Durkin. Creators substitute the theatre stage with 3D worlds in real-time via Unreal Engine, the visual effects company behind Star Wars, The Mandalorian. Select audience members will also be able to participate via webcam. So, sing along, cheer and shout ‘Behind you!’ at the touch of a button. Cinderella Live premieres five live shows worldwide with now until the 24th of December. Then they’ll be available On Demand from 1st-31st Jan 2021. Exclusive screenings are also available to schools for in-classroom viewing of shows on the 16th and 17th. For full details on the cast, the production and tickets, visit www.pantolive.com/us_canada
Great news Murdoch Mysteries fans! The traditional Christmas episode was not made this year due to Covid-19, but Acorn TV and the show’s producers have a special treat lined up for Christmas Eve, A Music Lover’s Guide to Murdoch Mysteries. An intimate and safe concert special shot onset, hosted by the Detective William Murdoch Yannick Bisson will feature the show theme and music popular in the show’s Victorian / Edwardian period.
Between selections, “Murdoch” entertains with anecdotes about the composers and the works featured in the special, while the performances feature fanciful visuals from the series. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra takes it away under conductor Robert Carli like so:
-Opening Theme from Murdoch Mysteries – ROBERT CARLI
-Pavane pour une infante défunte– MAURICE RAVEL
-Clarinet Quintet in B Minor, Op. 115-Mvt. IV – JOHANNES BRAHMS
-Suite from Murdoch Mysteries – ROBERT CARLI (containing motifs heard regularly in series, including the opening theme and moments when Murdoch is either deciphering puzzles or solving crimes)
-Excerpt from Mazurka No. 2 – LAURA GERTRUDE LEMON
-Adagio Molto – PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
-String Quartet, Op. 76 No. 2, “Fifths” – Mvt. IV – JOSEPH HAYDN
-On the Beautiful Blue Danube, Op. 314 – JOHANN STRAUSS II (fun fact: Detective Murdoch and future wife Julia danced to this waltz while they were dating)
-Maple Leaf Rag – SCOTT JOPLIN