Mexico’s Day of the Dead seems like a grim idea for an annual musical festival, celebrating those who have left us. It features death masks and gruesome skeleton costumes, but Disney Pixar’s Coco shows it as a colourful, loving ode to family ties, through feasts and music that is anything but grim. Miguel dreams of becoming a famous singer and guitarist like his father who abandoned the family for his career. Miguel searches for him in a fantastic journey that takes him to the land of the dead. It’s a surprising love story that defies death. No matter what life hands us, Miguel learns the importance of carrying on with hope and faith and opting for love. It’s a starting point for acts of kindness and of joy and remembering. And given Miguel’s sunny optimism and all-embracing love, Coco is superior holiday viewing. Acting singing savant and charmer Anthony Gonzalez as Miquel leads the voice cast that includes Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt and Cheech Marin. Check my interview with Anthony Gonzalez! He’ll make your day.
Another terrific performance by Denzel Washington as a lawyer who sits somewhere on the autism scale in Roman J. Israel, Esq. during the turbulent civil rights era in the US. Washington never gives half of himself to a role and he goes to the heart of this character that is entirely new to his body of work. He’s a brilliant legal practitioner with a photographic memory, who prefers his own company, eats only peanut butter sandwiches and works selflessly to the ideal of rights for all. He was the silent brains behind a law firm that’s closing after decades and he’s forced into the glass and steel world by Colin Farrell’s corporate captain who recognises his unique intelligence. We feel Israel’s adjustment to his new life and are touched, amused and with him. His solitary life is now out there and gradually he embraces the gift he’s been given reminding us that everything can change in a moment.
Angelina Jolie produced The Breadwinner, the story of an Afghani girl who puts her life on the line so that her family may eat. Survival is the heart of the powerful and beautiful animated drama from director Norma Twomey balancing the deadly environment of Parvana’s war-torn town in which females are not allowed outside their homes without a male escort with the wonder and childlike curiosity she has to know more of life. She sells at the market with her father but when he is arrested the family’s welfare falls to her. Parvana disguises herself as a boy and searches for her father while she keeps earning and her identity secret. Her bravery is inspiring as we wonder how people survive regimes that treat women unfairly and cruelly as a matter of ancient tradition. Jolie continues to bring us world stories that matter. Saara Chaudry and Laara Sidiq star in the film based on the award winning novel by Canadian author Deborah Ellis.
Dan Stevens, Downton Abbey’s Matthew is Charles Dickens in the delightful holiday film The Man Who Invented Christmas. Ever wanted to know how Dickens got the idea for the classic Christmas novel? It came from inspiration, observation and the sheer horror of failure and debtors’ prison. Dickens had recently undertaken a major house renovation furnished with the fine, expensive things his wife liked. They were on the verge of financial ruin and his publishers were about to drop him. Relentless insults from his literary rival William Makepeace Thackeray helped goad him to succeed and his imagination shifted into overdrive. Dickens carried on, et voila! Tiny Tim and Scrooge and Victorian London came to vivid life. The film’s a delight, it’s festive, sweet, darkly funny, pretty to look at and pure family fun, directed by Bharat Nalluri and written by Canadian actress and screenwriter Susan Coyne.
Last Flag Flying takes place thirty years after three men served together in Vietnam. They haven’t kept in touch but “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) asks Marine Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to help him bury his son, also a soldier, killed in friendly fire. They have mixed feelings about this loaded request but agree. Together, their memories of war, good and bad come flooding back. Shepherd’s son is to be buried in Arlington in his military uniform, but his dad wants him home in New Hampshire so the three kidnap the coffin and make a run for it. It doesn’t go as easily as the military tries to take charge, so it becomes a story of lament and activism. The film is smart and challenging with great performances and writing that tugs hard at the heart.
Hollywood legend Hedy Lamarr was considered the most beautiful woman in the world at one time, but she had led an extraordinary life before she got there. Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story on at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema offers a glimpse inside the mind of the Austrian born actor who escape her Nazi husband’s castle in a daring plot and went on to achieve world-wide stardom in Hollywood. She married six times and was famous for her affairs, with among others, JFK and Spencer Tracy. Footage was leaked of a film she’d made in Europe called Ecstasy, in which she appeared nude and simulated an orgasm and pandemonium followed. But Lamarr’s real passion was inventing which she’d been doing since the age of five with her father. She created the model for what became known as frequency jumping, a technology used to help torpedoes reach their targets accurately during WWII. Today frequency hopping is the basis of Wi-Fi, Blu tooth, cellular communication and various military applications including drone warfare. Lamarr changed the world but lived out her final years unheralded in total seclusion.
Netflix has done it again. It has reimaged another genre, the western, in Godless, a stunningly beautiful limited series set in the mountains and deserts of Santa Fe, New Mexico. A ruthless criminal played by Jeff Daniels, and his posse of 30 have just wiped out the people of a small town “in five minutes”. The telegraph operator was murdered so no one knew for a while. Sam Waterston is a lone sheriff who comes to town to survey the damage before setting off to find the perpetrators. Meanwhile a posse member turned enemy played by Jack O’Connor is shot and is taken in by a settler (Michelle Dockery of Downton Abbey) living with her mother in law and son in a remote prairie cabin. Crafty corporate lawyers are attempting to take advantage of a town of women to buy the mineral resources they own for less than market value. It’s violent and not for the faint of heart but the scenery and the cinematography is extraordinarily beautiful. Canadian actor Tantoo Cardinal is outstanding as the mother in law.
Misery based on the Steph King bestseller and directed by Rob Reiner is known for its meticulous build of tension and it’s just as effective today as it was in 1990. Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes holds captive her favourite author Paul Sheldon (“I’m your number one fan!”), played by James Caan. She finds him badly injured following a car crash and carries him to her remote mountain home to recover. Things go well until she reads the manuscript he’s about to send to his agent, which finishes his series on her favourite heroine by killing her off. Wilkes blows a gasket, and threatens him to rewrite it so her heroine lives. He knows he has to get away but he’s drugged and hobbled, and has discovered her murderous past. People are starting to miss him but he can’t catch a break. Btw Lauren Bacall plays his literary agent who shows up by phone from the glossy skyscrapers of Manhattan. The Blu-Ray and DVD is available Tuesday.
Free Screening: Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox free this Sunday! This superb film about Canada’s First Nations is based on a native legend dating back thousands of years. Inuit filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk takes us to a nomadic community in some unknown time when an evil shaman came to steal innocence. The people lived in harmony with nature and one another until murderous intruders steal in and rob them of their peaceful birthright. Twenty years later Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner return to challenge the shaman, but Amaqjuaq is murdered and Atanarjuat runs for his life across the ice plains. It’s a magnificent, iconic sequence that speaks volumes. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was named Canada’s Top Film in a 2015 TIFF poll and you can immerse yourself in it, for free, twice on Sunday, at 3:30 and 6:30 at 350 King Street W., Toronto.
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