Ladj Ly’s timely take on Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables moves from 1862 to present-day Paris, when racism, immigration bias, police corruption, enforced prostitution and poverty still thrive. The added elements of instability, drug addiction and trafficking help push the divide between the have-nots and the police. For instance, three gendarmes, the thuggish white lead man, a black officer straddling moral lines and an out-of-place idealist newbie patrol the crime-ridden marketplace. They enjoy terrorizing a little boy who steals a bag of live chickens, harassing a Muslim adolescent girl, and eyeing criminal factions painted as rivals. Corruption is the milieu, but the local children decide to stand up against it and for themselves. The tipping point is the theft of a lion cub from a visiting Gypsy Circus. A little boy playing with a drone happens to capture the police committing a violent crime. The powder keg is lit. Ly’s riveting tale with its twist on the classic novel is a remarkable accomplishment, given the scope and sweep, even majesty, as it addresses Paris’ deep historic troubles. Not to be missed, hard and tight and packed with meaning, and France’s Oscar submission and Best International Film.
Six miles down into the Pacific Ocean, a team of researchers is trapped inside an exploding submarine laboratory, there aren’t enough safety suits or rescue pods to go around, the power source is iffy and a mystery monster – or something – is after them. Pretty standard story, but It’s damnably hard to see past the murk and power outages so when the sturm and drang break out, the heavy lifting is left to our imagination. This is Underwater starring Kristen Stewart as a tech engineer/disaster superhero with soothing efficiency that is going to make things ok, we hope and save the crew. The late reveal monster looks variously, like a cat, a toad, a fish, a modern dancer, intestines, a severely overgrown garden, a boa constrictor – its anyone’s guess. Again, the trouble with many contempo films is balance. If all moments are tense and fraught, and the monster’s popping out at us nonstop, then there is no room to take emotional stock. That requires relief and connection and they aren’t on the menu. Stewart manages to take her job seriously and rises above the material, direction and design.
Russian director Alla Kovgan brings to paints a vivid portrait of a modern dance world phenomenon in her exquisite documentary Cunningham. Merce (Mercer) Cunningham, who worked up to his death at age 90 in 2009, reshaped the artform in the US. He’s considered by one of the most important choreographers of the century, USA or world, I don’t know. He refuses to define what he does, but he thrived on collaboration with his life partner John Cage, creating mind-bending pieces of incredible power. He also worked with Brian Eno, Radiohead, artists Robert Rauschenberg, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella and Jasper Johns. Many of his creative partners and members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company go on record about him and the dance footage spanning seven decades is extraordinary. In one scary, comic dance, he wears a costume he knit and bounces around the stage on his knees like a jester. We also revel in the sheer beauty of his body’s elegant and inventive fluidity. Dance fan or not this film is a soul-filling experience capturing the vast capabilities of the human body and imagination.
Hollywood Suite examines television’s role in our rapidly changing society in the world premiere of its original doc Queering the Script. It looks at the influence of queer relationships in shows like Xena: Warrior Princess, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl, The 100 and Carmilla and queer-positive stars like Ilene Chaiken, Stephanie Beatriz, Lucy Lawless and Angelica Ross. We’ll also hear from a group of dedicated fangirls who describe how these series made them finally feel they belonged in mass media and indeed, the real world. Producer Stephanie Ouaknine says ” This is a film about loving earnestly and passionately, without shame. In a world that exalts cynicism and snark – there is something fundamentally joyous about the world of queer fandom, and its sheer positivity and sense of community. We could all learn a thing or two from the Xena Camp.” Learn about their profound take on “shipping” and the culture of a specific brand of fandom. It’s an eyeopener and for those struggling with identity and representation in a fairly white bread media landscape, a comfort.
It’s hard to find one of my favourite series since it went off the air four years ago, but BritBox saves the day. Wallander, Seasons 1-4 makes its North American exclusive premiere starring Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander, a brilliant but broken Swedish detective subject to periods of extreme distress who puts himself at great physical and psychological risk to solve difficult cases. He’s a murder savant with experience, instinct and an understanding of criminal psychology. Interesting detail – the series is set in Sweden and surroundings; street signs, books and other materials are written in Swedish. But the entire cast is English, with English accents, a fun oddity also to be found in the excellent series Zen. Wallander also stars Tom Hiddleston when he was not yet a boldface name. Henning Mankell’s novels form the basis for Wallander, this version and an earlier Swedish version of the series that marries the grim dread of police murder investigations set against a stunningly beautiful and severe rural Swedish forest and farm landscape. Challenging, poetic and incredibly interesting.
I’m a bit late on Netflix’ fact-based crime series Unbelievable which began in November but boy am I glad I found it. Led by Toni Collette and Merritt Wever as police detectives in Washington state, it’s intelligently put together with clearly defined characters, excellent performances, great writing, the works. A teenager (Karim Devers), trapped in the foster system is raped by a masked man, thankfully she remembers details. The attacker establishes a pattern of behaviour that appears in subsequent attacks on other women, but the male detectives are barely interested. The girl’s foster moms doubt her story and the abusive, unbelieving police s leave her no choice to save her sanity but to recant. The female detectives are convinced she was raped and later attacks matching hers confirm it. And sadly, the original victim is arrested for making a false report. Unbelievable is a brilliantly structured cat and mouse story that’s also about the growing trust and bond between the detectives in the war against the male status quo.
Super Channel’s four-part series The Accident starring Sarah Lancashire, Sidse Babett Knudsen, and Joanna Scanlan tells a timely story of corporate corruption and its victims in a tightknit Welsh village. They’re about to get a boost thanks to a new factory that will provide 1000 jobs to those affected by coal mines closures. One afternoon, a group of kids goes exploring inside the unguarded factory to spray graffiti and smoke, but a terrible accident sees the building implode, killing all but one. The mourning villagers discover that combustible gases were improperly stored inside and the steel structure of the factory, made with inferior materials was bound to collapse. Police and the corporate owners blame the children, but furious villagers disagree. A mystery man shows up to warn the families what they’re up against when it seems impossible to get answers. Everyone’s blaming someone. The tension is tight, the story crisp and fast-moving and offers a stinging rebuke of the power elite.
We’ve all been waiting for this as the final season of the beloved sitcom Schitt’s Creek is underway.
Our own Catherine O’Hara went for broke as the startling and stunning Moira Rose, motel owner and displaced rich woman, creating a totally unique character with a voice and language we’ve never heard before, and a revolutionary female character was born – again. Celebrate O’Hara’s unmatched talent in a juicy retrospective beginning next week at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
January 15 Beetlejuice As Delia Deetz O’Hara walks off with every scene as Wynona Ryder’s stepmother. She’s an artist and megalomaniac who’s purchased a family estate to house her horrific artwork, but runs up against ghosts and a design “bio-exorcist”.
January 16 Waiting for Guffman O’Hara and a gang of small-town theatrical wannabes stage a musical production to celebrate Blaine Missouri’s 150th anniversary. All bets are off when they learn a big city talent scout is attending. Director-star Christopher Guest shot the entire thing, no script, in a few days and created a classic in which O’Hara’s Schitt’s Creek husband Eugene Levy co-stars.
January 17 Best in Show the fabulously funny mockumentary on dog shows in which O’Hara and her dog-loving partner – Eugene Levy – pen tunes to their canine companion – “God Loves a Terrier,” while she counts her many lovers. Also screens January 24.
January 22 Over-earnest folk singers are pilloried hard in A Mighty Wind with Levy and O’Hara as estranged, once married musical partners reuniting to pay tribute to their late manager. Fans are hoping that they will rekindle their once flaming ardour and reunite personally as well as onstage, maybe at the same time.
Critics Choice Association/AWFJ/TFCA/FIPRESCI