Skip to main content

More August Screening Views

With more and more content arriving on popular streaming services, I’ll start with a small screen pick 
The Family (2019 Netflix)
Netflix is not afraid of controversy and has been pouring money into “docuseries”, of which this five-episode offering is the latest.  It has production backing from Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw Pictures and is helmed by Jesse Moss who directed the outstanding 2014 documentary The Overnighters that focused on pastoral help to a troubled transient population drawn to North Dakota’s then booming energy industry.  There’s a troubling spiritual angle here as well, but the subjects are those in society’s elite positions not at the bottom. 
            The “family” of the title is a “fellowship” foundation that claims to follow Jesus and “nothing else”.  It also prefers to remain as invisible as possible. With origins traced back to a Seattle founding father of Norwegian descent, the organization has become the force behind the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast and similar activities in many countries, hence the suspicions of surreptitious global reach. For a half century its key American figure was the late Doug Coe who was known to many powerful men.  The fellowship owned an Alexandria mansion ‘The Cedars” and a “C Street” private residence where influential gatherings supposedly took place. Our guide to the “family network” is journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of the 2008 book The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power.  Sharlet had spent time in an affiliated group residence “Ivanwald” for young men dedicated to Jesus. (There was a separate segregated residence for young women, apparently taught to be handmaidens to these Jesus-loving men, but we learn little about it.)    
            The early episode investigations use re-enactments which I’m not a fan of.  And although Moss interviews a number of participants who claim no ulterior agenda (it’s “just Jesus”), the series is clearly critical of an approach it finds to be insidious and anti-democratic.  After all, the family’s gospel is directed at ministering to powerful men who, even if great sinners, are encouraged to think of themselves as “chosen” in some way.  That can be exploited by the Christian right to push reactionary policies, or by strongmen in power (there are scenes involving Putin and Trump) who can be flattered to think of themselves as on the godly side of things.  The focus on using men of power and influence is certainly in contrast to the gospels’ “preferential option for the poor”.  
This is a Christ for those with the most not the least, which makes the upshot of the docuseries quite disturbing even if its dark insinuations can seem overblown.  It does help to explain how someone as unchristian and morally depraved as Donald Trump can be embraced by conservative evangelicals as if he were doing God’s work, as observed in this review:     
There Are No Fakes (Canada 2019
Writer-director Jamie Kastner’s astonishing documentary starts with the purchase, by Barenaked Ladies’ musician Kevin Hearn for $20,000, of a painting by Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau who was acclaimed as “the Picasso of the north”.  After loaning the work to an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, curators determined it to be a fake and took it down.  Hearn sued the gallery from which he bought it.  That legal case is just the start of a tangled web of deceit and horrific violence.  Morrisseau, who died in 2007, was a residential school survivor who sank into drug and alcohol addictions. He was also bisexual and vulnerable to exploitation.  Digging deeper, Kastner uncovers a Thunder Bay-based counterfeit ring involving several of Norval’s close relatives.  Worse, the kingpin was a violent sexual predator who molested First Nations boys coming from reserves.  To the distress of Morrisseau’s adopted son, and Morrisseau himself in sworn statements, the result was a vast output of inferior work beyond what he had actually painted, much of it acquired by an auctioneer, galleries, and collectors. Questions about the authenticity of many works has them concerned to protect the value of their holdings. That’s the complicit mantra behind the “there are no fakes” title.  In addition to the shameless misuse of a great Indigenous Canadian artist, whatever his afflictions, the details of this story are truly sordid and shocking. Buyer beware indeed.  A    
Le Mystère Henri Pick (France/Belgium 2019)
Paintings are not the only subject for artistic hoaxes. Among the many delights of this witty satire from Gaumont (‘depuis que le cinéma existe’) from director and co-writer Rémi Bezançon—adapting the eponymous novel by David Foenkinos—is the brilliant central performance by Fabrice Luchini as the often exasperated (and exasperating) Jean-Michel Rouche, a pompous literary critic hosting a television show, until upset by a sudden literary phenomenon he is convinced is fraudulent.  The sensation is caused by the publication of an acclaimed novel “The Last Hours of a Love Affair” by a hitherto unknown and deceased author—the Henri Pick of the title—owner of a pizzeria, who was never seen to read or write by a wife who nonetheless stands by the unlikely story (and has a typewriter to prove it).  The manuscript was supposedly found by a young woman Daphne Despero (Alice Isaaz) in a “Library of Rejected Books”.  The location is the coastal village of Crozon in the northwest Finistère department of Brittany.  There are also Russian/Pushkin connections.  Having lost his wife and job over the affair, Rouche is determined to get to the truth, teaming up with Pick’s initially hostile daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin). He discovers that the deceased founder of the Crozon library had a marriage of convenience with a Russian émigré Ludmilla Blavitsky (a cameo by the great German actress Hanna Schygulla best known for her work with Rainer Werner Fassbinder). Earlier there’s a brief scene with a Bénédicte Le Floch who had borrowed and never returned a Pushkin book.  (Let me explain how I enjoyed the Breton connections.  My Le Grand grandparents came to Canada from Finistère.  Indeed Breton not French was their mother tongue. I’ve been to Crozon, which is not far from Landévennec where a cousin of my mother’s belonged to the 5th century Benedictine abbey. And on my grandmother's side, near Plonévez-Porzay I have relatives named Le Floch whose hospitality I’ve enjoyed.)
            Enough with the personal digressions.  Suffice to say that another key character is Daphne’s boyfriend, a frustrated writer Fred Koskas (Bastien Bouillon), who is after Rouche to read his novel Le Baignoire (“The Bathtub”).  Rouche’s search for vindication leads to a veritable Russian roulette of ruses.  All told, a most amusing time at the movies.  A   
Instant Dreams (Netherlands 2017
The title of writer-director Willem Baptist’s strange exploration refers to the almost instant prints made by Polaroid cameras.  It came to Ottawa’s Mayfair repertory theatre that has a penchant for oddities, and I also once owned a Polaroid camera—stolen in 1975 on a day trip to Tijuana, Mexico of all places. I still have a few Polaroid prints.  Baptist does give a few details of the “one-step photography” invented by the notoriously secretive Edwin Land in 1947.   The founder is long gone and the original Polaroid company also is no more. Although there are still “instant cameras” around (see more at:, the analog photochemical process—which a former Polaroid scientist Stephen Herschen is shown obsessively trying to recreate—has been almost completely superseded by the digital revolution.  Another subject is Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid who takes polaroids of his young son every day.  But by far the weirdest character is the eccentric Stephanie Schneider, a desert dweller who keeps a stash of expired Polaroid film in a fridge in her trailer. Typically clothed in a pink dressing gown, her work includes staging lesbian poses in the desert environs.  There’s also a snap-happy young Japanese woman using a smartphone, perhaps indicating today’s Instagram-type gratification? Layered over this are some psychedelic sequences and portentous philosophizing voice-overs. This dream is mainly for nostalgia buffs since few photographs are printed anymore. Why bother when billions of smartphone images can be shared virtually instantly across the globe? B    


Popular posts from this blog

Best of 2018: My Choices for the Best Dramas and Documentaries

The Best of 2018 Notwithstanding the popularity of at-home streaming services led by Netflix, movie-going to theatres is not declining.Indeed in 2018 North American attendance is up with a record box office of almost US$12 billion. Even if much of this is for tentpole blockbusters centred on comic characters, the big screen appeals more broadly.Take the case of my best movie of the year, the Spanish-language Roma.A Netflix production available online since December 14, the large Ottawa theatre where I saw it a second time was still packed for a post-Christmas showing in a 10-day run. Good news indeed.
10 Best Narrative Features 1.Roma (Mexico/U.S.) Viewed on the big screen the immersive luminous black-and-white cinematography and ambient soundscape is even more impressive in this semi-autobiographical masterwork from Alfonso Cuarón which features a sublime performance by first-time actor Yalitza Aparicio as the central figure of Cleo, the Indigenous nanny-housemaid in an upper-class Mexi…



April 24, 2019 was the official launch of The Best of Screenings and Meanings: A Journey Through Film at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Saskatoon, SK

Blog Posts for 2018

September: The Human Condition My most recent peak cinematic experience was in the last days of August at Toronto’s Bell Lightbox, home base of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) which starts September 6. (I’ll be seeing about 25 films at this year’s edition. That’s for a later blog.) This was the screening over three days—August 25, 26, and 28—of the monumental Japanese masterwork The Human Condition directed by Masaki Kobayashi and released as three two-part films—No Greater Love, Road to Eternity, A Soldier’s Prayer—from 1959 to 1961. Presented as part of TIFF’s “Summer in Japan” series, this was a rare chance to take in a theatrical showing of one of the greatest achievements of Japanese cinema. The timing also coincided with the 80th birthday on August 28 of a longtime Ottawa friend George Wright whose son Roger and family with two young granddaughters live in Tokyo. Bring…