Sunday 17 November 2019
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John Wick Back But, Farm Odyssey Steeped in High Drama, Mike Leigh’s Ode to the Poor, You’re in Space and Doomed and More for a Long Weekend

John Wick’s mournful vulnerability following the murder of his wife and his righteous rage when organised criminals murder his beloved dog were keys to the success of the first outing. Keanu Reeves as Wick was THE avenger, reviving his former identity as an assassin to root out love-killing evil. Here we are in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and the High Table, the assassins’ union so to speak, has a beef with him. The control room has removed his protections and there’s a $15M price on his head, and Ian McShane, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne and packs of leather jacketed thugs from all corners of the earth are out for his head. Now it’s about money, speed and greed, and that’s not quite as sexy as a Wick deep in his reveries, or as heartwarming as puppy love or as relatable as a happy union, ended. There’s plenty of action for the fans, but perhaps fifteen minutes too much, an array of headache-inducing light shows. I wanted to love this film because John Wick rules, but its heart is dead, slashed, shot, beaten, broken, smothered, run over and sabred, like most of the cast. (See Peterloo) I don’t know what this is, but I want John Wick, the feeling, sentient hero, back.

Imagine being excited and revved up by a film about a couple building a sustainable farm on 200 acres outside of Los Angeles! Todd, the dog got in trouble for barking in the Chester family’s LA apartment so they dreamed a dream, got investors and started their homestead. John and Molly Chester’s doc The Biggest Little Farm follows the former city dwellers over eight years as they transformed dead farmland into an eco-paradise. Sounds sweet like those communes back in the sixties but the journey gets pretty dark at times. Every step forward throws them back two, but therein lie the lessons. No screenwriter could come up with this piquant, thunderous, tiny and huge story, it had to be lived by people with faith and passion and no experience.  They attempted to create a healthy environment to grow things but wound up accomplishing so much more. Since when does a film make you fall in love with their dreamy naiveté, a baby bunny, a snake, a pig, a coyote and blade of grass? No, Terrence Malick is not involved but as we all know nothing is stronger and this dramatic, glorious two hours remind us that the world can be made better if we open our eyes and learn. An eco-rallying cry tucked inside a nature love story with pigs.

England’s seven-time Oscar-winning writer and film, television and theatrical director Mike Leigh doesn’t make many films. But when he does, the results are what he calls “independent, indigenous and serious”, dramas and comedies, Topsy-Turvy, Secrets & Lies, Naked, Mr. Turner and Vera Drake among them. Leigh doesn’t work with a script and I’m wondering how he did it with his latest, the historical drama Peterloo. Set in Manchester two hundred years ago, the lower classes are starving under harsh Corn Laws and high taxes. Activists organise a peaceful protest in St. Peter’s Field attended by 60,000. The government gets wind of it; they sneer at the “unwashed” then realise they’re in danger and send in armed forces. Soldiers on horses trample, sabre and beat men, women and children, killing the very people who just helped defeat Napoleon for king. The ruling classes had gone mad but journalists reported events and drew attention to one of the darkest chapters in British history.  Leigh follows fact-based characters based on documents and media coverage for realism. He doesn’t depend on music, telegraphing, frenetic arcs to build drama, but lets it reveal itself. This is honest storytelling, authentic and seemingly simple but extraordinarily natural and rich.

Veering wildly from majestic and breathtaking to really boring, Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s Aniara adapted from the sci-fi epic poem by Swedish Nobel laureate Harry Martinson is a brainteaser of some weight. Earth’s systems have collapsed due to climate change and desperate unrest, so an alternative lifestyle emerges on Mars. Strange human cargo ships, high tech and soulless, carry thousands of immigrants, but this trip, following therapist Mimarobin (Emelie Jonsson) is doomed. A nail has pierced machinery and the ship is unsteerable. What was to have been a journey to Mars of three weeks, to four weeks, then a year is now an open question. Housekeeping, algae for food, security, chain of command, is in place but week by week, passengers prefer not to think they’re doomed and carry on using artificial intelligence to experience soothing natural earth visions. Over the years, orgies, cultism, suicide and isolation is the entertainment under iron-fisted security.  The mall-like environment with its distractions and shopping opportunities rot along with hope as society degrades along with Mimarobin. A corker of an ending kind of makes up for long stretches of nothingness, and if you can make it to the end, there is a reward. This is one strange trip.

Filmmaker and provocateur Werner Herzog with André Singer profile a man they call “the greatest living politician of the twentieth century” in Meeting Gorbachev.  Now 87 and battling diabetes, Gorbachev famously opened negotiations with the U.S. to reduce nuclear weapons, ended Soviet control of Eastern Europe, reunified Germany and dissolved the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. He was the last democratic leader of Russia. From poverty in isolated North Caucasus to admired world leader he left a legacy of humanity and change. Herzog is the ultimate fanboy, alternately slopping sugar on Gorbachev then asking leading questions and cornering him. He flatters and cajoles then tells him he loves him. Weird. He says the films subversive, but much of it is about himself. THAT’s subversive.

Big-hearted tiny dynamo Dr. Ruth Westheimer was the Mary Poppins of sex at the height of her career.  Her chirpy enthusiasm, smiling visage and soothing manner made those words, those thoughts and those acts okay while she enthused about the marvel of that most natural function. Documentarian Ryan White digs deep into the archives to follow her incredible rise to the forefront of pop culture rising from her tragic early years. Ask Dr. Ruth reveals that her Jewish parents living in Germany under Hitler sent her to an orphanage to save her life. She became a slave and never saw them again. She survived to become a sniper in Israel, and eventually a licensed sex therapist in New York.Now 90, Westheimer refuses to retire or leave her Washington Heights apartment of 54 years; she basks in the obvious adoration of her children and grandchildren. She finds an old beau from the orphanage and rekindles their friendship; life is good. White’s remarkable choice of a subject and the treasures he unearths create a one-of-a-kind doc experience that lifts up and entertains.

Joseph Hillel’s documentary City Dreamers shines a much-needed light on the work and legacy of four female architects with Canadian connections. Phyllis Lambert, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander, Denise Scott Brown and Blanche Lemco van Ginkel began their careers decades ago, introducing human-scale, eco-friendly materials, plans and landscapes. They cited a green space for every four hundred families, called to save historically significant buildings, make streets pedestrian-friendly and make environments for people. Sounds pretty radical, and it was. They saw things differently, one says “We had wayward eyes”.  Unfortunately, they were often excluded due to sexism that followed the end of WWII but here we get to hear their stories. From Philadelphia to Paris, to Montreal, British Columbia and Ontario they went on quests to re-establish “our relationship with the environment and human health”. It’s inspiring that these women are recognised.

Remember the Polaroid camera? Did you tuck the photos into your armpit to speed up those instant images? Documentary filmmaker Willem Baptist takes us down memory lane to the roots of the phenom, its extraordinary commercial success and its 2008 shuttering. Instant Dreams is a moody mishmash of people in unique disciplines addicted to Polaroids, starting with the creators of the process and  their complex journey, present-day scientists attempting to identify its unique chemical formula, called “the most complex chemical compound made by man ever”, a woman who lives alone in a desert trailer and clings to her dwindling supply of expired film to make wacky, poppy prints of sexy cowgirls (Udo Keir shows up uncredited to play the doctor). A guy digs in to please his three-year-old who wants to see instant pictures. Hard focused, all. There are surprises, shocks and weirdness set to the tunes of a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. Rather grand for a kitschy, toss away experience.

The documentary Gift based on Lewis Hyde’s classic bestseller looks at the concept and meaning of a word weighted in various cultures, including in Canada’s indigenous Pacific Northwest ritual of potlatch. It states the obvious – “a gift is a tribute to something that can’t be measured or counted, bought or sold” and sets out on a global journey. From building a totem to creating a gift economy, to the gift of art as housing to the gift of song, there’s a lot of terrain covered, a museum in Auckland, a bumblebee car at the Burning Man Festival, a factory housing art and the homeless in Rome, and the B.C. festival. Potlach helps a family build its reputation by gathering friends and giving away or burning all their possessions to show their wealth of knowledge, creativity and allies. Ambitious, painstaking, illuminating and serene to its core, Robin McKenna’s film was nominated for the Director’s Guild of Canada Awards’ Allan King Award and is interesting, if slow movie experience.

George Clooney’s longtime partner and friend Grant Heslov’s reimagination of Joseph Heller’s satire on the military bureaucracy, Catch-22 has landed atHulu as an original miniseries. A bold move considering the cultural impact of Mike Nichol’s 1970 film version, a tough act to follow. Yossarian (Chris Abbott) is still at war in Pianosa, feigning mental illness to avoid flying bombardier missions.  He argues that thousands of people are trying to kill him but to ask to be grounded, or being grounded by mental illness violates regulations, a Catch-22. You have to be crazy to fly missions, and if you want out of combat duty, you can’t be crazy. Less convincing than Nichols’ superior film but its darker and less funny. However, Clooney, who also directs is fabulous as the knee-jerk commander who shudders with rage, spit flying and even funnier when his rants are shot from behind or the side.  Yossarian shows one authentic reaction following a bloody enemy death mid-air “His face was right there”.  The moral questions are the same but this version is strangely at arm’s length too removed to have an emotional, intellectual effect. Hugh Laurie plays nutso Milo Minderbinder and there’s the character Major Major Major Major Major who proves that it’s all farce, Alice in Wonderland, circuitous logic, nonsense, i.e. “Are you enjoying your missions?” provocative but obvious.

The second season of Jennifer Podemski’s far-reaching docuseries Future History premièred this week on APTN.  It’s a fascinating 13-episode exploration of achievement and creativity within the indigenous community in Canada. Hosts Sarain Fox and Kris Narghang meet artists, healers, storytellers, makers and dreamers that celebrate the rich indigenous contributions to our country past present and future and tell their own highly personal stories. They meet a 13-year old water activist and cultural warrior, a youth dance and music workshop, suicide prevention and intervention organizations and indigenous knowledge in, among other disciplines, cutting edge social science research, childbirth and prenatal care. Podemski, a well-known actor-producer dons the director’s mantle for this, her labour of love.

by @annebrodie

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