An imaginative, filmic approach to what is essentially a lecture, “Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet” covers the nine planetary boundaries for planet Earth’s sustainability for human purposes, such as climate change (note this issue, a momentous one to me, is only one of the nine), ocean acidification, land use change, biodiversity loss, and five others. Johan Rockström, a Swedish environmental academic, runs an institute devoted to exploring the earth’s vulnerabilities at such macro levels. In a sense, he is synthesizing all the environmental dangers we know exist, all of them due to humanity’s inexorable grip on its planet. Well, now that I’ve told you what Rockström is addressing, how well does Breaking Boundaries work as a film? Rockström’s own talking-head and voice-over pronouncements can come across as a solemn, Swedish-vibe Ted Talk (and indeed there are some cuts from those), but the visuals and accompanying graphics and charts are terrifically conceived and executed. Best yet, David Attenborough provides a counter-narrative to Rockström’s, which proves to be a genius move. Attenborough turns a lecture into a story, and my recollection of Breaking Boundaries derives far more from memories of what he relates than the other elements of the film. Overall, this is a vital topic well treated in filmic fashion, with Attenborough-style genius thrown in. Highly recommended.
The first season of “Staged” gave every impression of being the last, simply because it so obviously played with the pandemic lockdown world. Essentially it was David Tennant and Michael Sheen hilariously, cerebrally sparring over Zoom about rehearsing over Zoom for a post-Coronavirus play. While some of the humor derived from the brilliant concept, the real pleasure was manic, unpredictable improvisation of the two leads and a dozen or so others. Guest jaunts from the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and Judi Dench only added to the pleasure. I judged it to be a “Coronavirus boon,” so when, out of the blue, Season 2 was sprung on us, I was delighted if anxious. Would the concept sour? The welcome news is that the second season is even more adventurous, virtuosic, and comedic. A simple conceit – that Sheen and Tennant miss out on starring in a remake for American audiences because they are insufficiently famous – almost spirals out of control as the two of them rage and mourn and grieve and plot. The overarching control of Simon Evans (who co-writes, directs, and puts in a fabulous performance himself) ensures that all eight episodes of Staged’s second season are cackingly funny and sparkling. Cameos by Michael Palin, Jim Parsons, Simon Clegg, Cate Blanchett, Ewan McGregor, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge are perfect icing on a reprise that outdoes the first season.
“A tonic,” I called Season 3 of “Call My Agent” when I watched and reviewed it during last year’s lockdown. Season 4 opens with the four core talent agents split apart and now buttressed with a handful of younger aspirants. Skullduggery abounds and the firm ASK, the heart of the series, struggles to retain its glory days. Camille Cottin stuns as the firm’s new head Andrea, Thibault de Montalembert is rock steady as Machiavellian Mathias, Gregory Montel is pitch perfect as earnest Gabriel, and among the supporting cast, Nicolas Maury steals the show as Herve. The central conceit of Call My Agent, real stars playing themselves, has never been amped up as much—Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sigourney Weaver, and Jean Reno triumph in resonant roles. Laughs abound, Parisian eye candy delights, and sly plot twists enthrall, but the strength of the show remains the exploration of the characters’ ambitions and hearts. Much as I am averse to over-praise, Season 4 tops its three predecessors and is roundly recommended. Ah, sweet times indeed were the four seasons of this feast of story, portrayal, and life’s lessons. I wish for a fifth season of Call My Agent but to go out on such a high is indeed a fitting closure.
Years from now, this linearly constructed documentary, “Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World,” will be watched as a crystalline gaze into the force that is Greta. Constructed as a simple tale – Thunberg takes a year off school to straddle the globe for activist and self-educational purposes – the documentary maintains a simple palette of scenes. Accompanied by a tone-neutral narration by Paul McGann, we see Greta in motion; Greta in major events (Davos, etc.); Greta as voice-over; Greta quizzing a scientist or engineer; Greta’s father Svante; and Greta as talking head. Even more than was the case with I Am Greta, a similarly focused documentary in 2020 (which I labeled “an incandescent film for our age“), Greta Thunberg inspires by showing, with refreshing candor and lack of hype, that Thunberg really is an ordinary person called to action by the climate emergency reality that should impel all of us to drive change. She enunciates so clearly the thoughts we know we should be thinking. Her consistent call to “follow the science” is brilliantly pithy and on song. In this documentary, the rise of the Covid-19 pandemic actually interrupts Thunberg’s plans, but in a way, witnessing her isolating and refreshing adds to to the movie’s grace. Wonderful.
The pleasures of the second season (eight episodes) of “City on a Hill” are myriad. A scabby, garrulous, violent tale of Boston law and order in the 1990s, it juxtaposes a corrupt FBI agent (played in wonderful form by Kevin Bacon) and an aspirational black prosecutor (equally as well cast and acted, cementing Aldis Hodge’s reputation) amidst black gangs, project lives, and drug deals. Bustling subplots energize every scene. The settings are so, so gritty and the 90s music interjections so apposite. The ensemble cast is first-rate, standouts being Pernell Walker as a black community paragon and Jill Hennessy as a questing Catholic wife and mother. Dirty-realistic tales like this can readily founder, either ending up as noir porn or as sentimentalized journeys, but not City on a Hill: the serpentine storyline delights time and time again. Like all superior noir, few characters are pristine and some of them are shockingly malevolent, yet somehow every character is given the dignity of an arc that renders him or her human. The first two seasons have each felt complete and satisfying, leaving plenty of room for at least Season 3.
Can a documentary culminating in (no, not even culminating in, rather originating with) the 2018 chopping up of the body of renegade Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istambul, on the direct orders of Saudi Crown Prince MBS (Mohammed bin Salman)—all of this fully known to me—possibly hold interest? Fear not, earnest moviegoer: “The Dissident” trumps all expectations and is a spellbinding masterpiece, quite the most impactful movie I have seen so far in 2021. Director and co-writer Bryan Fogel has assembled a remarkable array of interviewees, the most notable being Kashoggi’s fiancee and a Turkish prosecutor, and arranged a mosaic of news clips, talking heads, surveillance footage, audio transcripts, and backup material into a fascinating narrative. Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi exile now morphed into a dissident Youtube star, provides a compelling reflection on Kashoggi, his life and philosophy and courage. Fogel’s script and direction never take a misstep. In the end, The Dissident becomes a moving exploration of morality and injustice and justice sought, an exploration that rivets one to the screen far more than the next spy thriller.
A Guy Ritchie film represents a juicy treat of violent froth and after the triumph of The Gentlemen, I made sure to go see “Wrath of Man” on the day of its Melbourne opening. Such a splendid title, I thought. Jason Statham brings his stolid physicality to a role as H, a new recruit to a depot of armored cars that tote millions and train newbies to survive. Soon H demonstrates the Statham style of invincible physicality and we are treated to a series of nested flashbacks that allow the viewer to piece together what H is doing at the depot. All well and good, and vintage Ritchie. I enjoyed the pace, the semi-cartoonish raw bloodshed, and the presented plot puzzle. Notable was the brooding, hellscape musical soundtrack penned by Christopher Benstead, so notable that I left the cinema humming its six-note closing riff of menace. Alas, two pieces of the Ritchie style go missing in Wrath of Man. Firstly, the glorious panache we have come to expect shows only sporadic appearance; the dialogue is fluid enough but we miss the swagger of Ritchie’s best offerings. And second, a related issue is the lack of star turns. Over-the-top hammed-up set pieces by top actors are needed to make this kind of movie work. Hot McCallaney tries hard as Bullet, H’s armored car sidekick, but the other supports are unconvincing, and Statham’s lack of flair is a handicap when, as is mostly the case, the script offers him little to go with. Overall, Wrath of Man is an enjoyable diversion but nothing more.
A Korean family of four, having escaped poverty in their own country, buys hardscrabble farmland in Arkansas in the 1980s. The father is driven and willful, the mother seethes with regret and worry, the older girl is all lightness, and the young son has a heart condition. When his grandmother joins them, and water problems strike the farm, conflicts bloom even as disaster beckons. “Minari” is an exquisitely unfurled and filmed immigration tale, one that reminded me of the endless struggles of my refugee parents in a new land, and I sat transfixed. Emile Mosseri’s soundtrack is elegiac and dramatic in turns, somehow lifting the ordinary into poetry. Alan S. Kim steals the show as the son but it’s the wonderful, shaded performance of Steven Yeun as the classic striving father that knits Minari together. A most worthy cinematic experience.
Do I patronize the viewing market when I offer the view that “Mrs. America” must be one of the more unappealing streaming series to emerge over the last year? Whenever I mention to friends that they simply must delve into this complex nine-episode history of America’s attempt to enact the Equal Rights Amendment over the 1970s, I see their eyes glaze over. When I began my journey through Mrs. America, I had zero knowledge about the battle between the feminist titans that emerged in the hippy 60s, headlined by Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and relentless conservative Phyllis Schlafly (unheard of). After the first two episodes, I almost dropped out, chiefly because the subject matter seemed too arcane. But the series quickly gains momentum and becomes a riveting window into the times of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. The ERA, seeking to right myriad wrongs, needs 38 state ratifications to be tabled, and in the heady early seventies, that seems a gimme, but Schlafly, complicit with or manipulated by male politicians, proves too durable, and today it remains a paper monument. Each of the nine episodes ends up being a monument to a major or minor character, and the series is blessed with stunning performances: let me single out Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Rose Byrne as Steinem, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, Tracey Ullman as Friedan, and Melanie Lynskey as conservative field worker Rosemary. Not knowing the history, that is, the climax of this stellar series, I was gripped as I approached the finale of Mrs. America. Highly recommended.
George Clooney can do no wrong, whether he sparkles in big budget movies or smoulders in arthouse flicks. “The Midnight Sky” is an exceptional science fiction film directed by him, in which he stars with intensity and conviction. Based on a slim, feted novel by Lily Brooke-Dalton, it is firmly in the dystopia genre, and powerfully so. When a human Armageddon engulfs the globe, a lonely space pioneer in the arctic realizes he needs to head further north for one last frantic attempt to stop a returning space expedition from landing. Burdened by a left-behind young girl, he strives through riveting, beautifully composed snow wilderness scenes, even as equally majestic space scenes track the returning astronauts. Besides Clooney’s career-crowning performance in the lead role, Felicity Jones stuns as a space journeyer, as does Caoilinn Springall as the girl. Some of the swelling strings of the soundtrack intruded (I’m old-fashioned: I hate orchestral film music) but melancholy piano songs compensated. The plot, presumably the book author’s plot, is sneaky, in the best possible way, and the elegaic ending has stayed with me ever since my viewing. In the end. The Midnight Sky is about the human spirit driven by love, and unlike most films that subside into sentimentality, it emerges triumphant. A 2021 highlight.