Monday 9 December 2019
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What She Said! with Christine Bentley & Kate Wheeler

Melissa McCarthy’s Tour De Force, a Couple of Divas, Gerard Butler Chills Underwater and TIFF Cinematheque Celebrates Ingmar Bergman’s 100th Birthday

Melissa McCarthy’s extraordinary performance as Lee Israel, the literary swindler and forger, is inspired, complete and unforgettable. Her portrayal of the Hollywood biographer turned criminal in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is touched with genius and pathos, an extraordinary piece. She’s not sympathetic and she certainly doesn’t become sympathetic, but McCarthy’s touching hardass earns our attention as a wounded person with no idea how to reign herself in.  McCarthy proves her incredible range once again, this time carrying Israel’s deadpan misery of being a “horrible ***t” as she is described, bravely, as if it wasn’t a burden and manages a  single non sarcastic smile in two hours.  Israel’s a second rate Hollywood biographer who loses her steady job at The New Yorker because she’s rude. Driven by a runaway train of a personality and a vivid imagination, Israel does what she knows to save herself to stay off the streets. Her style of celebrity biography is no longer viable, so she turns to crime, fobbing off forged letters from famous people for big payoffs, providing them with character, precise impersonation and convincing signatures.  McCarthy looks completely different, dull, washed out with a permanent angry curl of the lip, and a cold stare that shows pure disdain. It’s through her eyes that she delivers the goods. This is McCarthy’s tour de force, in a drama no less. Sure there are some other people in the film, like Richard E Grant who plays a roué and her only friend, and he provides a strong second banana to her indomitable Queen of Mean. McCarthy plays Israel as not just the alpha male in any room but as a victim unable to save herself from herself.  

Hillary Swank and Michael Shannon are siblings who find themselves in a place many will find familiar, that realisation that their parents are no longer able to live independently in the touching drama What They Had. Blythe Danner’s character suffers from Alzheimer’s but denies anything is wrong, and fronts, laughing off her missteps and memory loss. Her husband, played by Robert Forster refuses to allow her to be placed in care; they’re fine, they can do it.  The children gather around when it becomes clear intervention is needed, setting off familial devastation unlike anything they’ve known before.  This is tough stuff sensitively delivered via compelling performances.

Watch my interview with writer and director Elizabeth Chomko, whose own experiences are at the heart of the film.

Paul Weitz’ Bel Canto has lofty ambitions hobbled by telenovela sensibility, but it’s a good, if hammy yarn. Julianne Moore plays a renowned opera singer in an unnamed South American country to perform for a group of industrialists and diplomats.  She’ calls her agent to say she is afraid of armed soldiers in the streets and won’t perform there again. Ken Watanabe is a Japanese businessman, being wooed to build a factory in the city.  There’s a lot riding on the weekend’s success.  The diva’s hauntingly beautiful voice fills the mansion when armed rebels invade and hold the guests hostage, demanding the release of political prisoners.  Bloodshed and terror break the spell of her voice. The rebels are initially triggered happy, but over the course of time they spend with the hostages, listen to the singer and Christopher Lambert (!) play piano and their attitude changes.  Soon rebels and victims are playing football, eating and sleeping together and enjoying themselves until their odd if merry interlude is broken.  Whiplash plot twists a great comic line from Moore and make this a weird and wonderful entertainment.  Features the vocals of international opera star Renée Fleming. 

Another opera diva this time in her own words. Maria by Callas speaks frankly and courageously about her life in interviews culled from a variety of sources including television, private Super 8 footage and letters. She was eloquent and forceful, not an easy person to please and prone to high drama.  Her life was a rollercoaster from the highs as the most famous opera singer of all time to the lows of her failed personal relationships.  She was her own woman stating “It is not vain to want to reach the heavens” but she seems sad “I would have preferred to have a happy family and children but destiny brought me to this career, forced in by my mother and husband.  I would have given it up with pleasure”. The Tigress found solace in either a nine – or two – year relationship with Greek magnate Aristotle Onassis but was gutted when he married Jacqueline Kennedy without a word to her.  Her story is indeed operatic with numerous personal and professional scandals and director Tom Volf has given it a proper frame in one of the year’s most intriguing biographical docs.  Appearances by Marilyn Monroe, Alain Delon, Yves Saint-Laurent, John F. Kennedy, Luchino Visconti, Winston Churchill, Grace Kelly and Liz Taylor put her story in its era. 

Room for Rent is a quirky comedy with a lot of ‘tude mostly in the shape of high school lottery winner Mitch who burned through $3.5 M and wound up in his parents’ spare room. How did that happen, you say? Well, he spent his money on neon signs, a waterbed, forgotten memorabilia and investments in Evaporella, an umbrella that stays dry.  Being a high-schooler, he didn’t know marketing from marking and the scheme died immediately.  His dad loses his job, his mother won’t stand up to his sarcastic entitlement and he refuses to work to save them from ruin.  He offers his memorabilia room for rent and instantly, a guy shows up and moves in.  He’s a strange dude with a clear dislike for Mitch – the two mix it up and bad stuff escalates. A bad cop with a business idea joins the fun and nothing is off limits. Some great lines and revel in our dislike for all the characters.   

Gerard Butler stars in Hunter Killer, another of his self-produced hard man action thrillers, this time set in the dangerous world of secret Russian American enemy engagement and underwater.  Hunter Killer is a category of submarine designed to attack and sink other subs, surface combatants and merchant vessels according to Wikipedia. Butler’s given command of a sub despite inexperience and ably disarms his wary crew. Just in time as a skirmish with Russian subs in the Barents Sea leads to a discovery that ramps up their mission a thousand fold. They’re watching a remote Russian marine command centre – with binoculars – and witness the murder of men loyal to the Russian president and his capture by a general intent on destroying the world order. American generals are watching too via satellite and presto – Butler’s new mission is to rescue the president with the help of Navy SEALs. There are so many obstacles, so much weaponry and it’s so very loud. Speaking of which, Butler brings his performance down a notch and seems to be taking the acting part seriously. But as with so many films that don’t know when to wrap it up, there are just too many obstacles and questions left to answer. Still it’s fun and the underwater photography’s kind of fun too. Based on the novel Firing Point by George Wallace and Don Keith.

Screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan revives Howard’s End for a new generation in a four part series for Super Channel in Canada. The 1992 triple Oscar award winning film based on E. M Forster’s novel, starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins was part of the craze for films about wealthy Brits in stately mansions.  Inheritance was a recurring theme in literature in the 18th and 19th centuries and in 2018 the films take on property, money and reputation are astonishingly modern.  Three families intersect in Edwardian London, one wealthy, one middle class and the third poor but aspiring.  An awkward romance and an errant umbrella build a bridge between them with life changing results and always on top of mind, the fate of Howard’s End, the country manse at the heart of a bitter dispute.  New angles are presented on feminism, modernity and the certainty of change. Its charm is in its naturalism rarely depicted in period pieces that actually reflect the way we are.  Only four episodes!  Hettie Macdonald directs Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen with Tracey Ullman, and Julia Ormond.  Superchannel Oct 28th and on Super Channel On Demand the day following its linear broadcast.

A yearlong celebration of Ingmar Bergman as he reaches his 100th year is underway around the world and it’s our turn to join in.  A traveling retrospective of Bergman’s films including restored works, classics, lectures and special appearances hits Cinematheque at TIFF Bell Lightbox this week after major runs in London and New York.

Bergman 100offers the chance to see his best known works on the big screen and it’s a chance you cannot miss.  Bergman is a major component of my love of film and I recommend the series.  What I mean to say is, please GO! Among the titles on offer are Wild Strawberries, Summer with Monika,  The Seventh Seal, Scenes From a Marriage, Through a Glass Darkly, The Virgin Spring, Fanny and Alexander, Autumn Sonata, Hour of the Wolf and many more, particularly Bergman’s best known film The Seventh Seal in which “that” chess game is played.

Got that sinking feeling? You’re not alone.  Nine island countries are in danger of disappearing under the oceans but the threat is coming even closer to home. WNET’s Peril and Promise initiative presents a four-part documentary series Sinking Cities starting Oct 31 on PBS. Four populous cities threatened by rising sea water levels and increasingly extreme weather face time sensitive challenges that must be met or they too could disappear.  The fate of New York, Tokyo, London and Miami is examined by climate scientists, urban planners and engineers who concur that a changing and extreme climate what may be one of the biggest threats to human survival.  Researchers say climate change began 200 years ago as the industrial revolution got underway and storms like Sandy were man made.  Manhattan’s coastline has been built up with landfill four miles out, making the financial district and offices of all Fortune 500 companies and countless lives under threat when the water comes.  Not if.

The 19th annual Planet in Focus International Environmental Film Festival starts this week with an impressive lineup of documentaries focusing on our one and only home and its future.  Sharkwater Extinction screens along with 23 features and 28 short films that present the facts and ask the tough questions about our experiences as humans as we begin to dismantle earths’ ecological balance. 

This year’s Eco Heroes, including Rob Stewart will be recognized as their works screen. See the complete film list at It runs October 25 to 28

by @annebrodie

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