It’s Only the End of the World has just been named Canada’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Academy Award! The latest film from Canada’s youngest auteur, Xavier Dolan also won two prizes at Cannes and its finally opening in theatres. Dolan’s emotionally rigorous study of a young man (Gaspard Ulliel) returning home to his family after a 12 year estrangement is rough going. He has bad news and wants to connect with them again. The family has mixed feelings about his homecoming and tempers flare some violently, reopening old wounds. He realises he can’t share the news or experience any healing with them. The film has operatic emotional scope as it spies on his strained relationships with his sister, brother and sister in law (played by Lea Seydoux, Vincent Cassel and Marion Cotillard) that can’t be saved. The cinematic scope is tiny – they’re trapped in a claustrophobic farmhouse somewhere in France and you can’t wait to get out – and be released from all the pain of it. This is not Dolan’s best film but as ever it’s deeply felt.
Shot on location in Kampala, Uganda, Queen of Katwe (dir. Mira Nair) is the amazing fact-based story of a young chess prodigy whose story inspired girls around the world. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga plays Phiona Mutesi, the eldest daughter of a poor single mother living in Kampala townships. Phiona sells turnips for a living and has no outlets for her curiosity and intelligence. She wanders by a youth club where a local coach (David Oyelowo) notices how easily she picks up chess. She has a natural gift for the game and he dedicates himself to developing her skills and self-confidence. Her mother played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o forbids her to play. It’s not a spoiler to say that Phiona wins every competition in Uganda and goes on to the World Chess Olympiad in Norway, a world away from her roots. The film’s a crowd pleaser with a nice build, but it verges on formulaic predictability. The story is well known and Mair keeps things unfolding in a conventional way, so no big surprises or risks are taken. It’s fascinating to see life in African townships not depicted as constant chaos as is usual in films, but as a place of family, friends, support and growth. The film also addresses class discrimination against the poor. The film is based on the book Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, by Tim Crothers.
An extremely cool cast enlivens this remake of the 1960 Wild West action classic The Magnificent Seven (dir. Antoine Fuqua). Denzel Washington is in full movie star mode as the leader of a band of miscreant gunslingers; he’s charismatic and tough at the same time. Chris Pratt is his easy going and equally appealing partner and Ethan Hawke who continues to do nuanced, masterful work creates magic with the character of a grizzled gunslinger trying to hide his growing desperation and anxiety. They put together a tea of fighters to help villagers defend their homes from a murderously greedy corporation about to take the town by any means possible. There’s more at stake than getting paid so the men plan an elaborate defense to ensure victory. A widow, played by Haley Bennett, joins them on the front lines, her bosom falling out of her top as she fires on the enemy. The real stars of the piece are the horses, dozens of them, that fall, are thrown, fly through and are upset by battles, explosions and confusion. Fuqua claims not one was hurt and the action was real, no CGI.
Greta Garbo did it first in Queen Christina (1933) playing Sweden’s six year old Queen and now it’s up to rising stars Malin Buska and Canada’s Sarah Gadon to tell the tale in The Girl King (dir. Mika Kaurismäki). Kristina was a formidable presence on the Swedish throne seizing the power afforded her, making her own rules and refusing the conventional trappings of the country’s hard set values. She dresses as a man, fights, rides, debates and rules like a man. Kristina is credited with taking Sweden into modernity by bringing great art masterpieces; music and books home in a move to make Sweden “the new Athens”. She nearly bankrupts the country but satisfies her lust for learning by building Sweden’s first library, hosting the great thinkers of the day, and develops ties with Rene Descartes and the Pope. Kristina is an extraordinary figure, an iconoclast and fearless leader who changed Sweden forever. Her sexuality has never been proven but a longtime intimate relationship with her aristocratic handmaiden (Gadon) is thought to have been sexual and emotional and the filmmakers make hay with it.
Kate Winslet is The Dressmaker (dir. Jocelyn Moorhouse) an independent thinker who returns home to rural Australia in the fifties after living in the fashion capitals of Europe. She brings with her a love of high style, colour and beauty and the ability to sew fabulous frocks. She cuts a marvelous and colourful figure against the dusty, dry deserts and day to day lives of the people of rural Oz. Naturally she upsets the town apple cart, turning the provincial townspeople upside down with fear and envy and the women’s heads with new-fangled Dior style dresses, tailor made to bring out their natural beauty. It gets worse; some believe an old rumour that she killed a man. But our Kate knows how to win friends and influence people. She outfits the ladies with lovely frocks and encouraging words and the social sexual balance changes. It’s an ok film but the sense of joy and triumph as she transforms the women is irresistible. And cougars delight, Liam Hemsworth is there for a little sweet action.