Tag Archives: what to watch on Netflix

Operation Finale

This movie is a tribute to the unsung heroes of post-WW2 Nazi hunting.

When notorious SS agent (the architect of the final solution, no less) Adolf Eichmann suddenly pops up on the radar, Israel puts a crack team of secret agents on the case. Peter Malkin, in particular, is the loose cannon of the operation, but ten short years after the war, emotions run high for the whole team because everyone who wasn’t in a camp personally lost someone, or several someones, or everyone to Germany’s ethnic cleansing machine.

MV5BNGQ0YmVkMWItOGVlYS00ZWE2LWFhOTgtYzk1ZTAyZGQ5ZjFjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_Malkin (Oscar Isaac) and company manage to pick up Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) thanks in part to his indiscreet son who still hates Jews all the way from Argentina. They sweat it out in a safe house. For safe travel they require Eichmann’s signature, and Malkin vows to get it. The interrogation is heated; Eichmann is emotionally manipulative and he knows exactly which buttons to push. The agents have agreed to bring him back to Israel for a public trial, but not killing him proves to be a very big challenge for almost every single one of them. Eichmann knows this trial is not likely to rule in his favour, so he delays endlessly, which is also to the benefit of the Nazi rescue party determined to find him.

Oscar Isaac is terrific, of course. Malkin plays it cool, almost sympathetic, but he’s always on the verge of an emotional outburst. Isaac draws a haunted man, bent under the weight of his own grief, and the loss of a whole nation. Ben Kingsley strikes the exact right chord – reprehensible. His hypocrisy rankles. I felt it so personally it was easy to feel for the agents and to admire them for their restraint. But overall, director Chris Weitz’s ability to humanize his characters makes for some very watchable performances.

The scenes between Isaac and Kingsley are the best the film has to offer. Operation Finale is otherwise a little still, a little familiar, a little predictable. It has good intentions but you see them coming from a mile away.  At times it can be surprisingly complacent for a ‘thriller’. It’s an Argo wannabe that doesn’t quite achieve its potential, but it’s nice to hear from this side of history, and it’s fantastic to see Kingsley do what he does best.

 

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22 July

22 July 2011. Anders Behring Breivik triggered a car bomb in the government district of Oslo that killed 8 and injured 209. Two hours later he had ferried over to the island of Utoya where a summer cap for the youth division of the Labour Party was held. You likely heard about it on the news, at the very least. Breivik was dressed in a police uniform and armed to the teeth. He opened fire on the group of teenagers and killed 69 more, injuring another 110. The kids were like sitting ducks, and Breivik shot them one by one for the political affiliations of their parents.

The film, by Paul Greengrass, is difficult to watch, especially the beginning, which recreates the attack. Later it focuses on the survivors, and on the court case that wouldMV5BM2RkYThlMDQtZDZlMi00ZGVhLThiYWYtZWJlNzQ4YmQ2M2QzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDA5NjIzMg@@._V1_ keep Norway rapt. Breivik, who orchestrated the attacks to protest immigration and other stupidly racist, extremist right-wing bullshit, claimed insanity in order to avoid prison. But he also desperately wanted to stay in control of the trial, demanding the prime minister be called as a witness, and insisting that he have the opportunity to address the court to spout more of his hate, and so after “playing a role” for court-appointed psychiatrists, he decided to retract and change his plea.

As you can imagine, with 1 in 4 Norwegians in some way affected by these attacks, the whole country was fraught. The lawyers tasked with defending him were targeted themselves. But the movie’s beating heart is one kid, a survivor shot 5 times, who finds the courage to stand up and face his worst nightmare in court. He doesn’t want to let Breivik see his vulnerability, but feels the weight of all the voices who cannot speak for themselves.

It’s a moving film, of course. I said before that the first part was particularly difficult to watch, but for me, Breivik’s cold, rational, hateful testimony in court performed by Anders Danielsen Lie was even harder. Film has more or less desensitized us to horrific violence, but nothing can prepare you for looking into the eyes of a person we know exists, who really carries this hate in his chest in the cavity where a heart usually resides. That’s the tough part: reconciling ourselves with the fact that this villain has walked among us.

Thankfully, a thoughtful and humble performance by Jonas Strand Gravli balances this out. He is not just the spokesperson for the victims; he’s a stand-in for the horrified audience as well. Director Paul Greengrass has made these sorts of films his niche lately (Captain Phillips, United 93) and it’s a god-awful corner to have painted himself into, but I must admit he’s got it well sorted, but the movie’s attempt at dividing up the story gives it a sense of imbalance. It sputters a bit in the middle when it doesn’t quite know which movie it is. But it’s worth the watch. It’s an act of remembrance.

Nappily Ever After

Violet sets her alarm extra early so she can sneak out of bed, fix her hair, and sneak back into bed so her boyfriend thinks she wakes up like this. She does not. An exacting mother made sure that Violent has spent her whole life hiding her true hair. But even with all the tools and chemicals and salon appointments in the world, Violet is still Cinderella waiting for the clock to strike midnight. When it rains, or is even humid, the magic disappears and her hair reverts back to its natural state. So her life revolves around monitoring the weather and keeping her boyfriend’s hands away from her head.

On her birthday, Violet’s hair is perfect (though not without some drama). She is MV5BOTNhMWM0ZDUtZDI0Ny00OTVjLTgzMDctZTk4NWQwZmM3YmFiXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODQzNTE3ODc@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_expecting a ring from her boyfriend of 2 years and instead gets a puppy. Boyfriend accuses her of being “too perfect” so a breakup tailspin ensues, including stops at ‘fuck you hair’ and ‘drunkenly buzzing it all off.’ But can Violet change her attitude and values to reflect her newly bald head?

So, okay. I’m white. Violet is black. I am not the best person to review this film. I mean, on some level, many if not most women will relate. So much of our identity is tied up in our hair. But it’s different for Violet, for women of colour. Black hair, for some unknowable reason, has been viewed as…inferior? Is that the right word? Even very young girls may feel that their hair is somehow ‘wrong.’ A black woman who wears her hair naturally may be viewed as unprofessional at work, unkempt at school, perhaps even viewed as her making a political statement to the world. Culturally, hair may serve as a bonding tool, a thing that unites black people (even black men – there’s a whole franchise of Barbershop movies) but it can be misunderstood outside the culture. Black women make up 70% of the hair care market, but the marketing always features white women with long, straight, glossy locks. As do TV shows and movies and magazine covers. So to attain white standards of beauty, black women blow through time, money, and PAIN to achieve the kind of hair that grows naturally out of white heads but not their own. They’ve felt the need to suppress the natural texture of their hair not just to look attractive but to be accepted at work and in the world. But it takes a toll. Viola Davis said in an interview recently how nice it was to wear her hair naturally in Widows (which had a black director, Steve McQueen). She’s used to wigs, weaves, and chemical relaxers just to present ‘the right kind of black’ to Hollywood and audiences. As you know, there’s still a huge gulf to be overcome in terms of media representing people of colour, but even when a film does hire a black actress, she will often arrive on set to find that the hair and makeup team have not thought through her particular needs. They may be unequipped, in terms of tools and experience, to deal with her hair. It is rare to see a black woman on screen rocking her own natural hair. And that’s okay if it’s a real choice. I don’t wear my hair natural either. But for me it’s a matter of style and personal preference. For a woman of colour it may not feel like any choice at all.

So yeah, Nappily Ever After is a romance, but it’s one tied into culture and identity and hair and femininity and acceptance. Sanaa Lathan is really terrific in it, and relatable too. Even though the script itself is very much about the black woman experience, there are universal themes of authenticity that anyone can appreciate. There’s something very powerful about having the courage to be yourself – but I think there’s something even more powerful about living in a world where that wouldn’t be discouraged in the first place, even if that doesn’t exist yet.

 

 

[Women of colour, feel free to correct me or to add to the conversation. And to anyone interested in the topic, Chris Rock (yes, THAT Chris Rock) has a cool documentary about it called Good Hair.]

 

 

TIFF18: Quincy

Quincy Jones is an icon, a man who needs no introduction from the likes of me. He’s worked with the best because he is the best – not just at composing music or creating trends, but at transcending them, and transcending culture itself. If you listen closely, this movie is about a man who consistently allows his talent to break down barriers. He’s accumulated a lot of “firsts” in his life (the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song – and the first African American to be nominated twice in one year as he was also named in the Best Score category; the first African American to hold the position of vice president of a white-owned record company;  the first African American to be the musical director and conductor of the Academy Awards ceremony) but as far as I’m concerned, he’s also a man with a lot of “onlies” to his name – the first, and the only, because this man is a trail-blazer of incomparable talent and drive.

With his daughter Rashida Jones co-directing the film, they skate lightly over the more scandalous periods of his life and focus on his love of family and his impressive musical career. He composed for Frank Sinatra and for Sidney Lumet. He MV5BYzZhMTY1YjQtNWRjNi00YzVkLWEwODAtNzk1MjMzNzZiMWE1XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTc5OTMwOTQ@._V1_wrote movie scores and TV theme songs. He traveled the world making music, and he’s given back to the community by mentoring young musicians and passing the baton, literally, to new composers. He met Michael Jackson while working on The Wiz, and went on to produce Off The Wall, Thriller, and Bad with him. Oprah credits him for ‘discovering’ her for The Color Purple, which he scored and produced. He also composed the music to Will Smith’s Fresh Prince theme song – he was a show producer, and Will Smith auditioned for and signed a contract at Quincy’s 57th birthday party.

Between his art and philanthropy, there isn’t a corner of culture the man hasn’t marked and this documentary offers an excellent overview of his accomplishments while also providing insight to the life he lives at home. I love the many Quincy-isms up for grabs in this doc. There aren’t many topics where he doesn’t offer some bit of wisdom. But neither he nor his daughters (he’s got 6 – it’s almost biblical) believe him to be without flaws, but perhaps at the age of 85, we can afford to concentrate more on his activism and artistry, and the terrific impact he’s had on music and pop culture. You can check Quincy out right now on Netflix.

TIFF18: Roma

Roma is the kind of movie that births film criticism. It will be used as the golden example in so many future texts I ache to think how many words will eventually be written about it and can’t quite fathom it.

Mexico City, 1971, a young family is having a rough time. Mom and Dad were fighting a lot, before he left, and now they do it on the phone, when he remembers to call. Four young kids are feeling vulnerable and acting out. Two young servants are trying to keep it all from falling apart. But one of them, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), is going through her own private crisis as well. She’s pregnant, and the father has run off. Fearing for her job but unable to return home to her religious family, her current situation is tenuous and her future uncertain.

This is the semi-autobiographical work by Alfonso Cuaron about that crazy time in his MV5BNGEyMTgxZDYtOGUyZC00NDk5LWEwYjUtODcxYmZjNjFmZTFkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTA2ODMzMDU@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1502,1000_AL_childhood when his beloved maid’s unexpected pregnancy collided with his parents’ bitter divorce. It marked him for life, and all these years later he’s strung together the haunting images from that period and used his memory to paint in the rest. He’s only a minor character in the film, it’s really an ode to the women who raised him: his mother, the two servants, and Mexico herself.

Cuaron immerses us in Mexico circa 1971. Filmed in starkly beautiful black and white, you can’t help but drink it all in, everything from the airplanes overhead, to the geese in flagrante delicto, the muddy markets and the local cinemas, the grassfires and New Year’s Eve traditions, rooftop laundry and candlelit chores, every scene is packed with loving details to a time and place Cuaron clearly treasures. His camera moves slowly, soaking up detail, lingering lovingly in quiet places. His trademark long takes emphasize time and space – the big house compared to the servant’s quarters, and the time Cleo devotes to undoing the naughty work of busy children. The sound design is incredible. At times I was overwhelmed by the layers of noise in the city – hawkers, vendors, tradespeople, cars, trucks, buses, dogs barking, children playing, marching bands tooting their various horns in seemingly random parades.

Roma is of course shot in Spanish and subtitled with care. It is obviously composed with great care as well, with so many interesting angles and viewpoints (a Christmas party filmed at child height, for example) and depths of field. Lensed by Cuaron himself (Emmanuel Lubezki was unavailable, but his collaboration in pre-production means his DNA’s all over it, Cuaron assures us), he often keeps his entire shot in crisp focus, with as much going on in the background as the foreground – but when the focus goes soft, it’s for good reason. Take note.

This film brims with the kind of personal detail that makes it truly unique. I especially liked seeing the young boys clearly obsessed with outer space – posters, toys, and astronaut costumes – you can’t fail to think that these are the origins of Gravity. Indeed, Cuaron has left a little piece of his heart on the screen. It is not sentimental, but it is affectionate, made with love. And I think it will be received, by audiences and the Academy, with nothing but.

TIFF18: Outlaw King

Well, if you can’t beat Braveheart, you can beat horses. I mean, literally ruthlessly kill horses. Hundreds of them at a go. My god it was rough watching.

Outlaw King follows a different character in the Braveheart cinematic universe – Robert the Bruce. He starts the movie out as a defeated nobleman, having just surrendered his land and castle (but never his heart) to England’s King Edward. Oh he is pitiable in his lovely green frock, belted low on the hips – a dress that accentuates his piercing blue eyes and his hand-crafted mullet. King Edward gives him a wife (Florence Pugh) as a reward, and they are married in a ceremony celebrating the love of naps and political alliance, but not necessary each other. But since you can only mollify a man with one wife at a time, soon enough he’s riding around the beautiful Scottish countryside, trying to unite the people (impossible) and rally an army (near impossible) to mount the campaign against their English oppressors anew.

As you can imagine, King Edward and his sadistic, bowl-cut sporting son the Prince of MV5BYzE1Njc4MmQtNjFhMS00MGQwLWJiMGYtZjQzYzljZDQ3ODkwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjUwNzk3NDc@._V1_Wales are quite enraged, so they’re only going to come at Robert (Chris Pine) harder – including declaring him an outlaw, and seizing his wife and daughter (which is poor gift-giving etiquette on their part). So Robert just gallops around raising hell and hopefully spirits until the two sides meet in an epic, EPIC, horse-murdering battle.

Outlaw King reunites Pine with his Hell Or High Water director, David Mackenzie. Unfortunately, lightning hasn’t struck twice. Theme and tone and conviction are all noticeably weaker, as if neither Mackenzie nor Pine is entirely convinced this Robert the Bruce fellow is really worthy of the mantle this film bestows upon him. They raise the stakes by painting him a devoted family man and thoughtful lover, a conceit I’d expect to see in a bodice-ripping romance, not a historical war movie. But it still doesn’t quite add up to a towering hero, perhaps in part due to lazy editing. The movie, at 137 minutes, is too long by quite a margin. There’s a lot of repetition that could easily be cut down without losing a damn thing.

But don’t worry, it’s not totally without merit. The men, including Aaron Taylor-Johnson (does anyone play deranged as well as him?) and Tony Curran love to roll around in the mud. The boys spend 97% of the movie caked in dirt and bathed in blood – it’s a real sausagefest that should sprout at least 10 new chest hairs for all who watch. And you’ll learn some handy Scottish customs such as: it’s not just kilts they don’t wear under with; and the old smacking people to wish them luck (“Let this blow be the last you receive unanswered”) – a real swindle if I’ve ever seen one; and weird swan oaths that are perhaps better left to history, or at least what passes for history on Netflix.

Outlaw King is often intense and often gory and often brutal. But just when it’s getting to be too much, Mackenzie cuts to a long, sweeping panorama of the countryside, giving me space to breathe. But then he zooms in tight on Pine so we see that Bruce is demented with grief – it’s right there in his eyes. Sure they might be sheep shaggers and horse killers, but they’re also just super chivalrous men who politely wait for each side to make their impassioned, inspirational pep talks before commencing slicing and dicing. It’s real beautiful stuff. I would hesitate to recommend it if it was being released in theatres, but since you’ve got Netflix anyway, why not wait for a day when you’re really mad at a horse, and live vicariously.

TIFF18: The Kindergarten Teacher

Lisa is having a mid-life crisis. No, Lisa (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is having an existential mother fucking emergency. She’s been a kindergarten teacher for 20 years and she’s tired of teaching a curriculum she doesn’t believe in. She feels invisible at home, a mother to grown kids who don’t need her anymore, a wife to a man she doesn’t feel connected to. A continuing education class in poetry only highlights her unrealized potential and stifled creativity.

So Lisa is ripe for a prodigy, and what do you know, she “discovers” one right in her own classroom. Five (and a half) year old and full-time cutie-patootie Jimmy (Parker Sevak) MV5BMTYxODY2NDU5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDE3MTgyNDM@._V1_composes poetry that is beautiful and eloquent beyond his years. Lisa feels an addictive high when she recites it as her own in poetry class, receiving praise by peers and teacher (Gael  Garcia Bernal) alike. But mostly she just becomes obsessed with this kid, believing she’s the only one who can nurture his talent. Her behaviour becomes increasingly troublesome, though even on the mild end of the spectrum (depriving him of naps, luring him into bathrooms, alone, with candy bribes), I was uncomfortable.

Lisa is a complex character. You’re picking up on that, right? She legitimately believes she’s got a Mozart-level genius on her hands, and also that our current culture crushes creativity. And she’s not wrong, definitely not about one of those things, and maybe not about both. But she believes that gives her the right to overstep her bounds in some pretty major, pretty outrageous ways.

Maggie Gylleenhaal deserves every good word you have to say about her performance. It’s melancholy, human, and desperate. There’s something universal about a woman’s unsatisfied needs. But you don’t quite know where or how far Lisa will take this – it’s just slightly unhinged, which keeps you riveted despite the fact that the film sometimes feels like it’s not quite sure what it should be.

Director Sara Colangelo explores the many facets of her protagonist even when motivations are muddled and compromised. There’s almost a dark comedy running through the veins of this movie, throbbing and daring in a way that’s surprising given it takes place in a kindergarten class. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, you’ll sympathize, you’ll condemn, but you won’t look away, even when it stumbles, even if it can’t commit. The Kindergarten Teacher offers a confident performance and a fascinating character study.

 

 

Catch The Kindergarten Teacher on Netflix October 12.