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More Docs, Fallen Empire, and a Rocketman

I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries as part of the selection process for the 30th One World Film Festival.  In addition, here are three getting a theatrical release.
The Spy Behind Home Plate (U.S. 2019
Directed by Aviva Kempner, this is the fascinating story behind the espionage exploits of Morris “Moe” Berg, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to America, who first achieved renown as the Princeton scholar and lawyer who became an all-star catcher in major league baseball during the 1920s and 1930s.  Berg was played by Paul Rudd in Ben Lewin’s dramatization The Catcher was a Spy, based on the Nicholas Dawidoff biography Catcher was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg, that premiered at the 2018 Sundance film festival.  The documentary provides a superior and fuller appreciation.
During the Second World War, Berg, whose talents included knowledge of a dozen languages, was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, precursor of the CIA) and played a key role in assuring that Nazi Germany did not get an atom bomb.  One mission involved the potential assassination in Zurich of a leading German nuclear physicist.  Berg was a remarkable athlete and intellectual who, overcoming discrimination as a Jew, rendered truly heroic service to his country and the Allied cause.  A- 
The Lavender Scare (U.S. 2017
Not only Jews faced discrimination in America. Directed by Josh Howard and narrated by actress Glenn Close, this film details the campaign to purge homosexual men and women from the ranks of the U.S. government and armed forces at all levels—reaching a panic level during the 1950s Cold War McCarthyite “Red scare” with its allegations of subversive Communist infiltration.  Gays were seen as “deviants” and “perverts” who constituted “security risks” to the state.  Many careers and lives were ruined.  But some courageous individuals fought back.  Notably the documentary profiles the protest activity of Dr. Frank Kameny who became a leading figure in the movement for LGTBQ civil rights.  The film usefully recalls the consequences when citizens’ rights are systematically violated.  A-
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Canada 2019)
Writer-directors Martha Kehoe and Joan Tosoni have fashioned a worthy tribute to one of Canada’s greatest troubadours.  The young man from Orillia joined Toronto’s burgeoning Yorkville folk scene in the early sixties.  From a humble start he emerged as a major talent, and the film’s archival footage showcases his excellence as a songwriter, singer, composer, musician and performer (with iconic hits covered by many major stars and admired by the likes of Bob Dylan).  Through it all he has remained quintessentially Canadian.  The film includes interviews with Lightfoot, now an octogenarian, and observations by a range of appreciative musician contemporaries also showing their age.  He was able to influence the popular music scene without leaving his home and native land for the lure of international stardom.  Not that he was an innocent.  Far from it. Lightfoot’s thin craggy face shows the effects of years of hard living that included broken relationships. An older and wiser survivor, he seems at peace. And what a legacy—some of the best and most loved songs this country has ever produced.  A-
Rocketman (UK/U.S.
I’ve been a big Elton John fan since 1970, so perhaps I was primed to like this biopic … still it’s even better than I expected.  Helmed by Dexter Fletcher (who famously rescued  a troubled Bohemian Rhapsody after Bryan Singer was fired) it hits the highs and lows of a notoriously tempestuous life from the small English boy Reggie Dwight—with rather awful parents but a supportive grandmother who encouraged piano lessons—to the global megastar Elton Hercules John, flamboyant in outlandish costumes and oversized glasses. The adult Elton is well played by Welsh actor Taron Egerton who does his own singing.  A huge early break was the talented composer and piano player meeting poet-lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell).  The combination resulted in some awesome songs and an enduring professional partnership.  When an unknown John got a gig in L.A. he rocketed to superstardom in a few years.  He was also gay and his manager became his lover. At the same time, the pudgy piano man was struggling with loads of personal baggage, from self-loathing to the search for love. Falling into an indulgent hedonistic excess of addictions—alcohol, cocaine, pills, sex—other serial stumbles included a short-lived marriage to a woman.  That candor has the full backing of John who as executive producer wanted it to be no holds barred—from family tensions and wild behavior to raw behind-the-scenes confessions while in a support group for addicts.
But, my god, what amazing songs and performances!  These include sensational renditions of some of the best known, such as the first hit “Your Song”, to the titular “Rocketman” choreographed with an operatic range that goes from near-death overdose to childhood memory to the heights of stagecraft before adoring crowds.  The film does justice to the incredible life and career of a survivor and collaborator (avoiding the controversy that dogged Bohemian Rhapsody’s over its depiction of the late Freddie Mercury).  A coda shows Sir Elton as a contented husband (to Canadian David Furnish) and father of two young sons.  Take a bow. A-
The Fall of the American Empire (Canada 2018)
Veteran Québécois auteur-director Denys Arcand continues to cast a critical eye on the follies of the late-capitalist society around him. Now in his late 70s he has not mellowed much, and this latest offering in a sense completes a trilogy that began with The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Oscar-winning The Barbarian Invasions (2003). The setup involves Pierre-Paul (Alexandre Landry), an overeducated deliveryman with a doctorate who, witness to a violent holdup leaving two dead and one injured, manages to drive off with several bags containing millions in cash that he stashes in a locker.  Unwisely he keeps some that he spends on an expensive escort Aspasie, while seeking advice about the rest from an ex-con biker Sylvain (Rémy Girard), who studied finance while in prison, and a shady money-laundering lawyer.  As it turns out, the holdup was an inside job gone wrong, thereby arousing the lethal ire of a criminal gang that wants its dirty money back. Also on the trail, a pair of suspicious cops.
There’s a brilliant opening scene where Pierre-Paul expounds on his predicament of being “too intelligent” to a less than sympathetic soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend.  A good guy who volunteers at a homeless shelter, he’s also a somewhat hapless character whose philosophically erudite intentions get run over by crasser follow-the-money machinations.  The movie gets a bit lost in the mish-mash of those elements but its heart is clearly with those on the margins of the money-mad “empire” of the title.  Indeed it ends by showing faces of some of Montreal’s homeless Indigenous population, as if to underline the real casualties of a failed and fallen system where Mammon rules.  B+

30 May 2019
Ottawa Citizen
ADINA BRESGE The Canadian Press
Trump casts a thematic shadow over director Arcand’s latest film
Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand believes that centuries from now, people will remember our current political moment as the end of an era.
(The U.S.) is going to hell, at least as far as I can see it. They are running into trouble. DENYS ARCAND
In this way, the title of his latest feature, The Fall of the American Empire, could also be read as “these times we are living in,” Arcand said.
“It’s not precisely about ... Donald Trump. But still, every day, the news that you look at or that you read is reminiscent of a kind of fall,” Arcand said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival last year.
“(The U.S.) is going to hell, at least as far as I can see it. They are running into trouble.”
The 77-year-old director, who won an Academy Award for best foreign film in 2004 for The Barbarian Invasions, admits the Montreal-set film is somewhat removed from the workings of the Trump White House, but he said the cinematic and political dramas share a common theme — the power of money to drive people’s choices, for good or for ill.
“Once you don’t believe in anything, the last thing you believe in is money,” Arcand said. “It’s unavoidable, and at the same time, it’s our tragedy, because we have no other values than, ‘What are you worth?’”
A spiritual sequel to 1986’s The Decline of the American Empire, The Fall of the American Empire was inspired by a 2010 shooting in a Montreal clothing store that killed two people, which at the time police believed to be gang related.
The film centres on PierrePaul Daoust, played by Alexandre Landry, a disaffected young man with a PhD in philosophy who has to work as a courier to make ends meet.
During a delivery, Daoust happens upon the scene of a botched armed robbery to find two people dead and bags filled with millions in cash lying on the ground.
The philosopher is faced with a real-life ethical quandary: Should he leave the evidence for police, or take the money and run?
Daoust’s decision sets the stage for a game of cat and mouse involving criminals and law enforcement, following the money as it circulates in ways both legal and illicit.
Arcand said the film was originally titled The Triumph of Money, but he decided that was too narrow, because money is just a tool — its moral value is determined by how one uses it.
“You can do great things with money. You can better people’s lives; you can build hospitals; you can save refugees from Africa,” he said. “And you can also just have it and totally corrupt an election.”
The film premièred in Quebec last June and Arcand said he’s curious to see how it will be received by English-speaking audiences, particularly those in the U.S.
As with so many aspects of U.S. life, he imagines the response will likely be divided along political lines.
But to those who may mistake The Fall of the American Empire as call to oust Trump from the Oval Office, Arcand has a warning: Be careful what you wish for.
“In the Roman Empire, after Caligula came Nero, so don’t get your hopes too high,” he said. “If (Trump is) impeached and then (Vice-President) Mike Pence becomes president, it could be worse.”


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