MOVIES: Hollywood as Babylon, superstition in Iran and home … – Canada's National Observer

Happy holidays. And then, right after Christmas, for movie theaters at least, it’s the biggest week of the year. More than any other week, that’s when people go to catch a flick. Usually, anyway. Let’s see if this year is so. The studios have their holiday hopefuls out there right now.
Avatar came last week. This week we got Babylon, Matilda, Puss in Boots, the Whitney Houston biopic and more. Women Talking is coming soon and The Whale has snuck in quietly in a few locations. I’ll have to catch up to it next time.
Sarah Polley’s film Women Talking has opened in one theater in Toronto. I’ll cover it when it opens everywhere in January.
For today, I have:
Babylon: 3 stars
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody: 2 ½ stars
No Bears: 4
The Super 8 Years: 3 ½
Matilda the Musical: 4
Puss in Boots: 3 ½
BABYLON: Damien Chazelle is young. Maybe he doesn’t know we’ve seen stories like this many times. Or that we already know that Hollywood can be decadent. Actually he does know because he references Singing in the Rain several times and tells a similar tale about actors forced to adjust, or fade away, when sound came to the movies. He sets the scene very well with grandiose sets and sequences, parties that are almost orgies and outsized egos and do-anything ambitions. But he starts it all with an elephant pooping on actors and workers. So Damien’s taste, or is it just hyperbole, is in question. This is quite a reverse on his film La La Land.
The cast is terrific. Brad Pitt plays a matinee idol who likes the sauce, Margot Robbie is an up-and-coming starlet who likes cocaine, Diego Calva is a studio assistant who rises to executive heights, Jovan Adepo is a jazz trumpeter who is told he’s not black enough and Jean Smart is a gossip columnist surely based on Louella Parsons who could make or break careers. Chazelle has them all scrambling for power in early Tinseltown.
With so much possibility, the film inexplicably drags in parts. It’s over three hours long and really needs more insight to keep you enthralled. As it is, it’s a celebration of those old days, a glitzy revisit, and not much more. One great scene shows the difficulties of filming with sound. There’s a lot of name dropping by including Irving Thahlberg, a Mae Wong-like woman and others but to little effect. The celebration winds up with a montage showing the history of the movies from the earliest days to now, well The Matrix anyway. Movie fans will like that, and maybe some of what comes before. Not all of it though. (In Theaters) 3 out of 5
WHITNEY HOUSTON: I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY: We’ve already had two documentaries and a TV movie about her. So what’s new here? Downplaying, as far as I can see. And yes, celebration of a great singer and the inspiration her rise to the top can give. She had more #1 songs than the Beatles and is the most awarded woman singer of all time. I learned that from the film. Also this: her mother, also a singer, trained her, label owner Clive Davis (played by Stanley Tucci) discovered her and pronounced her “the greatest voice of her generation” and Bobby Brown (played by Ashton Sanders) married her and brought her scandal.
Naomi Ackie does a good playing her and lip-synching over Whitney’s recorded singing voice. The steps in her rise are clearly outlined, and key performances are staged (singing the anthem at the Super Bowl, a concert honoring Nelson Mandela, an astonishing medley at the American Music Awards). New to me is the close relationship she had with a woman friend which led to a tabloid headline asking if she is gay. The film doesn’t answer that but lets the question linger. Meanwhile her relationship with Bobby Brown is blurry. She spent a lot of money getting him out of legal troubles but did he get her hooked on drugs? Not clear. She finds his stash; he didn’t give it to her. Softening the story I didn’t expect from this director, Kasi Lemmons who made a film about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and this writer, Anthony McCarten the screenwriter of Bohemian Rhapsody. This film is good looking but standard. (In theaters) 2 ½ out of 5
NO BEARS: Here’s the latest from the Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who is forbidden from making films but does so anyway. This one he madein secret and it is partially about making a film under such strictures. He plays himself, is directing a film just across the border with Turkey (via Skype) and gets involved with the suspicions and the superstitions of the Irani village he’s staying in. That part of the story is universal: the differing attitudes you encounter when you travel. This town seems quite backward and closely honors and follows its traditions. Jafar gets entangled in them.
When he takes photos at a village celebration, he’s suddenly a target. The elders demand to see the pictures because they think they show one young couple talking. The man and the woman both want it because they’re in danger. Another young man wants it because he thinks the woman should be his. All three are agitated because they think they’ve violated an ancient village tradition. “Around here people just look for trouble,” says the woman. There’s also a parallel plot about a couple seeking a fake passport and how best to use it.
Jafar is grilled about why he’s here at all. Is it something to do with the contraband or people smugglers in the area? The film draws you in as it sets out all the difficulties, the superstitions behind them and the stories behind those local traditions. And what the title means. An enthralling film. (Arthouse theaters) 4 out of 5
THE SUPER 8 YEARS: This is a highly personal film by the French writer, and Nobel Prize winner, Annie Ernaux. A film made of her novel Happening, about an abortion, was here recently. This one is far different. It’s exactly like watching someone’s home movies and hearing the stories behind them. Ernaux’s ex-husband shot most of these movies because he said they’d never happen again. Ernaux and her son made them into a film and she added a learned and slightly left-leaning narration.
We see the kids at various ages but also various places. The parents wanted to broaden their view of the world and took them to Chile (where they commended what Allende was doing—and grieved not long after that it was all gone), Albania where they felt watched by the secret police, Portugal, Morocco, England before Thatcher and Moscow where they were impressed by the history. It’s interesting to watch, maybe even get nostalgic, for the times they show (the 1970s and early 80s) and they, along with her words, perfectly capture the attitudes and world view of liberal, middle class people back then. The film is short but eloquent. (In theaters: Montreal now and Jan 6, Vancouver starting Monday, and Toronto Jan 13) 3 ½ out of 5
PUSS IN BOOTS: THE LAST WISH: Here’s another very enjoyable children’s film but I’d say for older ones only, and certainly for teens and adults. For two reasons. One: it tinkers endlessly with classic fairy tales. It’s from Dreamworks which has done that for years with its Shrek films, one of which brought in Puss (voiced by Antonio Banderas). He then got his own film and now this sequel in which he’s still the self-centered swordsman but suffering a sort of midlife crisis. He’s used up eight of his nine lives and now fears death. That’s reason number two. This film is mostly about death. It reminds us that we’ll all die someday. Heady stuff for a kid’s film.
Death is represented by the big bad wolf. He appears to Puss repeatedly, taunting him and brandishing two scythes. He tells him it’s only a matter of time, watch out.
Puss is desperate and sets out to find a legendary “wishing star” which he hopes can restore his lost lives. Others are after it too. For instance, Goldilocks and the three bears (Florence Pugh, Olivia Colman, Ray Winstone and Samson Kayo). Also Little Jack Horner (voiced by John Mulaney) who as a glutton has become huge and wants to personally control all magic in the world. A cricket who sounds more than a bit like Jimmy Stewart is a conscience who spouts ethical ideas at him. Like I said, heady stuff. Puss also runs into his former partner Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek) and they share their history together. All the characters are given a backstory, some quite moving. The film is rich with detail, good animation and an eruption of visual imagination. (In theaters) 3 ½ out of 5
MATILDA THE MUSICAL: You’ve never seen Emma Thompson like this before, not even in the two Nanny McPhee movies (now streaming on CRAVE) and which she is now turning into a stage musical. In those she was just a no-nonsense child minder. Here she an educator who’s like a cruel prison guard running her school. She’s a former shot-put athlete and with a bulky stance and a snarling face berates the students mercilessly. She calls them “maggots.”
A sign at Crunchem Hall says “you are not special” and an etching on a statue says “No snivelling.” This is classic Roald Dahl attitude. He wrote Willie Wonka but also some nicely twisted short stories. Matilda was already filmed 26 years ago, then staged as a musical and now this. Your kids will love it. They’ll identify with the sweet, smart and imaginative Matilda (Alisha Weir), cringe at her narcissistic parents (dad rips up her copy of The Grapes of Wrath) and shudder at Emma’s Agatha Trunchbull. That name describes her perfectly. Best of all, the pupils stage a rebellion and it’s rousing. Lashana Lynch plays a nice librarian who does recognize that Matilda is special. A few cleverly-written songs add to the fun. It’s directed by Matthew Warchus who won awards in both New York and London for the stage version. (Netflix starting Christmas day) 4 out of 5

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