Alfre Woodard’s morally and spiritually exhausted prison warden in Chinonye Chukwu’s tense drama Clemency lives in the brain long after the film ends. Warden Williams oversees executions in her facility and has managed to repress the horror; she’s developed an intense rigidity that colours her job and her marriage; unable to sleep or connect with her long-suffering husband, she’s an automaton, carrying out legal murders but burying the authentic self that’s screaming to get out. As the execution of a prisoner she knows didn’t shoot a policeman draws near she enters a fugue state, finally unable to hold in the pain. And yet she refuses to change anything. Woodard is phenomenal! The film veers into straight-up melodrama but sheds light on the pathetic plight of innocent prisoners of colour who line death rows across the US. Clemency looks behind the curtain of justice’ last call.
One of the most provocative film reviewers ever to poke her stick at the movies was Pauline Kael, who ruled the roost at The New Yorker and various outlets from the early fifties to the mid-eighties. Roger Ebert called her “The most powerful, loved, and hated film critic of her time”. What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael from Rob Garver reveals Kael’s opinions, style, influence and legacy, with loads of archival footage, interviews with the filmmakers she skewered and commentators Francis Ford Coppola, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, Paul Schrader, and David O. Russell, and critics Molly Haskell, David Edelstein, and Joe Morgenstern. Kael may best be remembered for encouraging the “New Hollywood Cinema” of the sixties, the indie film wave that opened broad new vistas of creativity and reflected contemporary attitudes – Bonnie And Clyde, Nashville, Carrie and Taxi Driver- as she ripped into bloated big studio projects like The Sound of Music. This doc never rises to the subject strongly enough but for film fans, but it helps set the cinema landscape for the years Kael was active.
Apple TV+’s wonderful anthology series Little America is an absolute joy that manages to provoke, explore important social issues and melt the heart. The theme is Immigrants in the US; it follows various characters’ stories, all fact-based, as they grapple with that strange concept that is America. Toronto’s Deepa Mehta directs the episode The Manager, about a family from Pakistan running a roadside motel in Green River Utah forced to return home to sort out their immigration papers. They leave their precocious son to run the hotel, which he does with ease, and he becomes a spelling bee champ. However, he must walk away from his academic dreams to run the hotel because his parents’ stay has turned into years. Heartbreaking, hilarious and poetic.
Bharat Nalluri’s The Cowboy stars the amazing Conphidance as a Nigerian who lands in the US to study and immediately takes on the status quo. He upsets the rules of the academic world, learns to be a real cowboy and brings joy wherever he goes. And what a twist in his life! The true happy ending. The Silence starring Mélanie Laurent takes place in a 70’s rural yoga retreat. Seekers pledge total silence for the week of their stay which causes a lot of merriment. A guy and a gal hit it off, and seem to be on the same wavelength. But when the silence rule is lifted, a twist leaves them speechless!
Awkwafina’s riding a mighty wave to fame and glory these days what with her exceptional film The Farewell receiving 63 nominations and a Golden Globe for Best Actress/ Comedy award. And wait till you get a load of her new series on MUCH starting next week. Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens is based on her life in a tiny apartment with her grandmother and father where she does a lot of failing before winning. She’s hysterical, mining humour from life’s mundane moments, turning something as ordinary as sitting at the computer into comedy gold because the moment is so real. Not acted. Nora blasts through jobs – from rideshare driver, appearing in a cannabis/ vaguely porn YouTube show, and nailing a job as a real estate intern, while trying unsuccessfully to schedule a little self-love time. Her lines can be extraordinary – “I freak out old people, I remind them of ‘Nam” – and Grandma’s sharp too, vowing “I gonna K-Pop her face” in a fight with Koreans at an Atlantic City gaming tables. Nora’s apparently super-wealthy cousin who has a vestigial tail and ‘tude to burn is her nemesis. It’s a little dirty, ok, plenty dirty, tonnes o’ fun and clever and puts disappointing network TV sitcoms in the shade, imbued with Awkwafina’s singular, gloriously funny sensibility.
They call Send Me to the Clouds a “Chinese feminist dramedy” but that hardly begins to describe the depth and scope of the story of one woman’s journey. First-time writer-director and conservative Chinese feminist Teng Congcong’s protagonist, journalist Sheng Nan (Yao Chen) is a truth-seeker facing the absurdities of life in modern China. She’s kicked in the stomach on the same day she’s told she has a malignant ovarian tumour and doesn’t have long to live. She needs major cash for an operation but her father says no, she might not make it and asks her for money. The prognosis and inability to pay for treatment opens the door to absolute freedom. Nothing gets in her way from that point on. Sheng Nan decides to make the most of her time left and hooks up with a random guy and takes a road trip. The film was considered bold when it opened in mainland China because of its positive depiction of a strong-willed, singleton, a “leftover woman”. It’s an irresistible, brilliant feminist portrait that provokes and entertains. On-Demand and DVD.
You’ve heard about it and I’m here to share what I saw. Gwyneth Paltrow’s six-part Netflix series launching January 24th The Goop Lab tackles a single method each episode to improve women’s wellness. It’s clearly stated from the opening that the methods are not to be taken as medical advice, but as entertainment, and to consult a doctor if considering them. Because some of them are pretty darn wild. Paltrow and her staffers test the theories in the healing powers of psychedelics, cold therapy, orgasm, shock therapy, anti-ageing, energy healing and psychics. Doctors, researchers self-styled experts and alternative practitioners provide their insights and ok, I know you want to know about the orgasm episode, the first one I watched. Betty Dodson, a sex practitioner advises the Goop gals to toss out shame, learn the body’s functions and names, to open up communication and intimacy. Students gather in a circle naked and it begins. They go there. Caution: way out there.
The World According to Jeff Goldblum is the perfect showcase for Goldblum’s considerable natural curiosity. His quirky eloquence, easy charm and radiating warmth is the soul of this highly entertaining four-parter on Disney+. And it would take his kind of magnetic appeal to turn four half-hour investigations into the marvels of denim, tattoos, ice cream, swimming pools and sneakers into this much fun. Goldblum, who investigated horrific murders with icy, odd intellectual precision on Law and Order: Criminal Intent, now looks for clues as to the properties and histories of everyday things, and sparks serious joy. He smiles, raises an eyebrow, breaks into song and wins our hearts. Re: jeans, he concludes that the universal love of denim – worn by 50% of the world’s people at any given time – is due to its authenticity. The indigo dye is only superficially connected to the jean cotton so any action, or tear, hole or fade writes out the story of the wearer, a physical diary. Goldblum’s delight at learning is contagious and his truths universal. Way too much fun.
PBS begins a new series of Seven Worlds, One Planet January 18. Using low light technology, blinds, cunning tricks and endless patience, the filmmakers capture incredible wildlife imagery in America, things rarely if ever captured on film before, Tennessee fish building underwater pyramids, fireflies gathering in an otherwise black dark forest, polar bears hunting Beluga whales, bears hunting avocados, multiple Andean bears feeding in a single tree 90 feet high and for cuteness, poison dart frog babies. Watch for Europe Feb 15, Antarctica Feb 22, and Africa Feb 29.
Vera, Season 9 makes its exclusive Canadian Premiere on BritBox. Brenda Blethyn returns as Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope one of the greatest female detective characters in TV history. Her infallible instincts should be in a museum somewhere. When things fall into place in the course of an investigation, she lights up and races off, leaving her staff racing to catch up. DCI Stanhope solves crimes through inspiration, intellect and a deep well of understanding human nature. Exceedingly mean when crossed, she’s a perfect “pet” when pleased; staff lives in terror of disappointing her. Each episode is a movie unto itself, a complex hour and a half long with time for side characters, humour, reflection and truth. The series is based on Ann Cleeves’ murder mystery novels.
Discovered Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourite Things on BritBox! I don’t know if you miss her as I do when British holiday cooking shows disappear, but if you do, here’s something to tide us both over until next Christmas. The limited and utterly wonderful series is set in summer; Berry focuses on one place, one food source per episode – seaside food memories from childhood, countryside foraging, growing and using herbs at home and local farmers’ markets for inspiration. The herbs episode features a chef who grows forty different herbs on the rooftop and raises bees that thrive on the herbs. Berry’s recipes, some new and some dating back decades, celebrate foods and individual ingredients for homestyle and ultra-fancy dishes. Berry’s enjoyment of food is contagious and while its winter now, I’ll revisit the series this summer when her offerings are do-able thanks to backyard gardening and farmers’ markets. Oh, Mary, you are the new domestic queen, Martha, Giada, Ina are your handmaidens.
And on DVD and Digital Download, the excellent Pain and Glory. Banderas puts in a stunning Oscar-nominated performance as a faded movie director who becomes a late-life heroin addict, a partly biographical study of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. His light touch helps Banderas tell a complex tale of a man beset by emotional and significant physical pain trying to get it together for the 30th-anniversary re-release of his masterwork. It stirs uncomfortable memories from childhood, complicates his ability to navigate the here and now so he begins his search for grace. The film is beautiful to look at, emotionally and intellectually engaging and extraordinarily soulful.
by @annebrodie – Critics Choice Association/AWFJ/TFCA/FIPRESCI