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Post-Labour Day Movies Update

First a follow-up to a previous documentary recommendation on Netflix.  On Chinese reaction to American Factory:
Then, looking back to the storied summer of ’69, and the 50th anniversary of the most iconic music festival happening of modern times, here’s another documentary recommendation on Netflix: Woodstock: Three Days that Defined a Generation. This PBS production recalls many fascinating details behind the event. A
Even better and more significant is another PBS documentary production—the almost six-hour, three-episode series Chasing The Moon, written, produced and directed by Robert Stone. It’s streaming on the Kanopy platform which can be freely accessed with a public library card. Assembling a trove of archival footage and commentary the series—Episode 1 “A Place Beyond the Sky”, Episode 2 “Earthrise”, Episode 3 “Magnificent Desolation”—has many revelations and, like the excellent book by Oliver Morton The Moon: A History for the Future, doesn’t avoid the troubling domestic and international controversies of the times (Cold War rivalry and paranoia, systemic racism, social injustice, Vietnam, the aftermath of assassinations). 
The American entry into the space race was clearly provoked by Soviet firsts—Sputnik as the first satellite to orbit the earth in 1957; the first man in space in 1961.  Hence the political push that funded the Mercury and Gemini programs.  These were much aided by the post-war immigration of some 120 German scientists, led by “rocketman” Dr. Wernher von Braun, an ex-Nazi who had designed the V-2 rocket for Hitler. The U.S. first put a man in space in May 1961, and later that year JFK made the famous commitment to land men on the moon and return them within the decade.  Less well known is that in 1963 in an address to the United Nations Kennedy proposed a joint mission to the moon in cooperation with the Soviets. LBJ repeated the promise of peaceful cooperation but it was never taken up after Khrushchev’s removal. There were also spectacular failures in the program, the worst being the 1966 launchpad fire on Apollo 1 that killed three astronauts. One learns much, much more, including about events of world-historical moment, such as the Christmas eve 1968 photo of “earthrise”—the blue marble—taken from the Apollo 8 mission orbiting the moon.  Given the limited transmission capabilities of the time, the actual real-time images of the iconic Apollo 11 July 1969 moon landing were in ghostly black and white.  It’s interesting to note that CBS had hired Dalton Trumbo, the special-effects wizard behind Kubrick’s 1968 masterwork 2001: A Space Odyssey, to film simulations that were shown to TV audiences as such. (Sorry conspiracy theorists and flat-earthers.) After their return the Apollo 11 astronauts were sent on a good will global tour including to Communist and Third World countries.  But at home the enthusiasm wore off and the Apollo program ended in 1972, although it did generate huge technological spinoffs.
You probably have to be in your 60s like me to have much of a memory of the Apollo achievement. But whether or not you do this series will be highly informative and sometimes awe-inspiring.  Highest recommendation. A+  
Luce (U.S. 2019
This edgy drama helmed by Julius Onah, adapting the J.C. Lee play, generated considerable buzz when it premiered at Sundance. Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is an Eritrean war child adopted by Amy and Peter Edgar (played by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth, who were previously a screen couple in the savage 2007 American remake of Michael Haneke’s sadistic Funny Games).  They have invested years of love and nurturing in Luce, a bright and seemingly model high-school student. That is until one of his teachers Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer) is alarmed by his essay on Frantz Fanon, an advocate of revolutionary violence, and a bag of illicit fireworks are found in the locker he claims is shared with others. There are also questions about Luce’s associations and relationship with a girlfriend. Ms. Wilson, coping with a mentally disturbed sister, has her suspicions aggravated by a fire at the school and hostile graffiti sprayed on her windows. Luce, on track to be the class valedictorian, insists on innocence, and adoptive mother Amy especially defends him. The question left hanging—could there be games behind the façade?  B+
Balloon (Germany 2018)
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall memories are fading of what a symbol of terror it was for a divided Germany.  Hundreds of the many thousands of East Germans who tried to cross to the west perished, and all were branded as traitors.  This absorbing drama directed by Michael Herbig is based on the true story of two families with young children in the town of Thüringen who, a decade earlier in 1979, attempted the crossing by hot-air balloon. The details of this homemade project are truly extraordinary as secrecy was imperative given the totalitarian East German “democratic” republic’s obsessive surveillance of the population through its feared “Stasi” secret police network. The older boy of one family was also sweet on a neighbor girl whose father was a Stasi officer.  A first attempt failed when moisture brought down the balloon short of the heavily militarized border fence. That triggered investigations up the chain of command.  The “traitors” had to be found and punished.  The families, knowing they were being pursued, facing imprisonment or worse, gambled on a second desperate clandestine attempt. It was a race against time, and up against the full resources of a ruthless state. Tragedy or triumph would be the result as this film strikingly recreates the atmosphere of those times. A-
Tigers Are Not Afraid (Mexico 2017)
Among the many casualties of Mexico’s lethal drug wars are children who are the principal subjects of this award-winning drama from writer-director Issa López now reaching North American theatres. The title is spoken by a young girl Estrella (Paola Lara) who, after her mother disappears, joins a pack of orphan boys led by one called Shine (Juan Ramon López). He has stolen a gun and a phone containing incriminating evidence from a local politician “El Chino” who also controls a murderous gang, the Huascas.  Into this dark violent setting, with the children pursued by thugs, López introduces magic realist elements from a moving line of blood to shifting graffiti shapes appearing on the walls; in one scene even an actual tiger.  Would that one could wish away the horrors of this urban jungle.  But, as a lengthy review by Anthony Lane in the September 2 New Yorker concludes: “The phantasmal … offers no respite; it is simply part of the detritus that litters the townscape, making it that much easier for the residents—who are all too accustomed, God knows, to a ruined reality—to accept the imagined as true.” B+    
The Peanut Butter Falcon (U.S. 2019
From writer-directors Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, this audience award winner at the SXSW festival stretches the odd couple genre. We meet Tyler (Shia Laboeuf, soon to be seen in Honey Boy), a rangy grifter stealing crab catches off the Carolina coast who flees after setting fire to fishing equipment. Meanwhile, the tubby Zak (Zack Gottsagen), a 22-year old man with Down’s syndrome stuck in a retirement home because there’s no other place for him, keeps trying to escape despite the sympathetic attention of a volunteer caregiver Eleanor (Dakota Johnson). Eventually he succeeds, clad only in white briefs, helped by an elderly gent (played by Bruce Dern).  Zak’s stowing away on Tyler’s boat begins an increasingly odd journey, later by makeshift raft. Zak has obsessively watched old wrestling videos starring a character named “Salt Water Redneck” (Thomas Haden Church). Add a jar of peanut butter and bottle of moonshine to the odd bond with Tyler, and Zak emerges as the “Peanut Butter Falcon”.  Eleanor finding Zak just leads to another odd twist even as Tyler is pursued by angry wronged crab fishers Duncan (John Hawkes) and the heavily tattooed Ratboy (Yelawolf).  There’s still Zak’s wrestling hero worship to be satisfied. And I’m leaving out even odder elements until the story takes a Florida turn … what are the odds?  B+
I’m not a big fan of the horror/ritual sacrifice genre and this one, from directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillet, is wackier than most. Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien) is marrying Grace (Samara Weaving) in style at the grand family estate, after which she’s informed by patriarch Tony (Henry Czerny) that entering the family requires she play a game at midnight, part of a poisoned legacy, and when she pulls the dreaded “Hide and Seek” card things get lethally crazy fast, with a devilish by-dawn expiration date.  Among the cultish family members are an axe-wielding witch-like aunt. Alex’s brother Daniel (Adam Brody, looking very grown up from his TV “OC” role) looks deceptively “normal”, but this night even children get to play.  Grace’s desperation to escape leads to chambers of horrors, blood and fire.  Not for the squeamish. B      


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