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Viewing During a Time of Viral Pandemic


Instead of flying to Lima, Peru today to begin a charity challenge trek of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu I find myself grounded, but fortunately with a great many reading and viewing options.
Movie releases have been delayed and theatres closed across the continent with uncertain consequences:
However this interruption is already proving to be a huge boon to streaming services which can continue to be enjoyed in at-home isolation.  I have a half dozen. For more see this link and the articles below on the many streaming choices.
            Under the circumstances all of the following review notes and recommendations refer to content for home viewing, both TV and online. 
My highest recommendation goes to this new series I have already raved about:
Babylon Berlin (Netflix, Germany 2020, 12 episodes) A++
I might add that the second season of Sex Education is also excellent. A
            Not only has Netflix announced a $100 million dollar fund related to virus losses, it keeps adding a stream of new docuseries in addition to feature films.  I’ll start with four major new ones which collectively add up to over 20 hours of viewing time.
Dirty Money (Netflix season 2, 2020, six episodes) A+
This superb investigative series continues to expose the manifold ways in which huge ill-gotten sums corrupt societies around the world.  I’ll just draw attention to several middle episodes.  Episode 3 “Slumlord Millionaire” delves into the criminally corrupt activities of the real estate company currently led by Trump son-in-law (and unqualified advisor) Jared Kushner.  There is a pervasive pattern of abuse of tenants and defiance of municipal and court orders. Jared’s dad has served time.  The only surprise is why Kushner son wields so much malign power instead of being locked up. The next episode 4 “Dirty Gold” details the role of Peru in particular in a lurid chain from horribly dangerous illegal gold mining in the Amazonian regions to the trade in gold linked to narco-trafficking and money laundering on a grand scale.  This is an often lethal as well as filthy business.  Another heart-wrenching episode tackles elder abuse through “guardianship” scams.
Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak (Netflix season 1, six episodes) B+
This series could have been stronger.  The approach is somewhat scattered, skipping between situations in different countries. And while the timing of its release seems amazingly prescient, it has also been overtaken by current events.  The global "pandemic” anticipated is one similar to that of the H1N1 strain of influenza A—the so-called “swine flu”—that eventually infected some 2 billion people during 2009.  The series does not deal with the emergence of a novel coronavirus such as “Covid-19”.  However the multiple chapters over 6 episodes do convey a fair amount of interesting information and observations.  Although the series focus is on a potential new flu pandemic, it exposes a number of notable weaknesses across societies in terms of pandemic readiness and response that include woeful vulnerabilities within the U.S.  Also explored are the ill effects on public health of the fanatic “anti-vaxxer” movement which has continued to deny and resist the best medical science.  [*As a historical note, by far the most deadly pandemic in modern history was the so-called “Spanish flu” (which most likely actually originated in Kansas) beginning 1918, the last year of the First World War.  It killed some 50 million people or more (estimates vary).  About 50,000 Canadians died at a time when our population was much smaller (8 million compared to 38 million today)   For Covid-19 to be as deadly it would have to kill about 237,000 Canadians, equivalent to the total population of Saskatoon.]   
Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness (Netflix 2020, 7 episodes) A
This addictive series is the most gobsmacking wild and crazy—you can’t make this stuff up!—true story I’ve ever seen documented on screen.  The “king” of the title is “Joe Exotic” (formerly Joe Schreibvogel) who ran an exotic animal “zoo” in what a former reality TV producer describes as “bumf___” Oklahoma.  The main attraction was the large felines, lions and especially tigers (of which Joe claimed to have 227 at one point).  [Factoid: there are from 5,000-10,000 captive tigers in the U.S. compared to only 4,000 left in the wild.]  It was also a breeding operation so that Joe and his troupe of misfits (one lost an arm) could sell visitors poses with cute cubs. Oh, and the flamboyant gun-toting Joe is also gay who’s had not one, not two, but three husbands. (OK, one is now an ex and one shot himself.)  Joe’s nemesis is a Florida woman named Carole Baskin who with her second husband runs “Big Cat Rescue” that targets the illicit wild animal trade.  Joe claims that Carol killed her first husband and fed him to the big cats.  Crazy Joe also mounts quixotic runs for president and then for governor. Joe’s circle has included other sleazy wacko characters like long-haired “Doc” Antle of Myrtle Beach, ex-con conman Jeff Lowe, and Tim Stark of “Wildlife in Need”.  I’ll just say that Joe is now serving a 22-year prison sentence.  To find out how and why—this human train wreck is compulsively watchable!
Hillary (Netflix 2020, 4 episodes) A
This very fine series alternates between archival footage of Hillary Clinton’s remarkable life story, revealing behind the scenes footage of her most important political roles—including of course her ill-fated 2016 presidential campaign—and frank on-camera interviews in which she is disarmingly candid about the most difficult low points.  There are also a few separate interviews with husband and former president Bill, several former associates and advisors, as well as old school chums. There are no big surprises but one is left with a subdued, reflective and broadly sympathetic portrait of Hillary.  Her calm demeanour and admission of mistakes in itself offers a striking contrast to the bombastic narcissism of the depraved current occupant of the White House.    
Westworld (HBO/Crave 2020, season 3, 5 episodes from March 15) B+
There’s no more Anthony Hopkins as master evil genius but Evan Rachel Wood is back as “Dolores” and the human-like androids are out to take over the earth.  Worth a look.
The Plot Against America (HBO 2020 from March 16) A
Based on the eponymous 2004 Philip Roth novel, this arresting series imagine an alternate history in which aviation hero Charles Lindbergh—a Nazi sympathizer who supported the anti-war “America First Committee”—wins the Republican nomination and defeats FDR in the 1940 U.S. presidential election. That happens at the end of the second episode (which aired March 22), and we see the effects through the life of a New Jersey Jewish family. (There is also a rabbi who becomes a Lindbergh collaborator.) The second episode also includes an allusion to a real historical event—the February 1939 pro-Nazi rally of 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden sponsored by the German American Bund, archival footage of which is captured in Marshall Curry’s 2017 short film A Night at the Garden (watch it at: https://anightatthegarden.com/.)
The timing is interesting given the Trumpian closeness to the far right and its weaponization of social media to spread false narratives.
This series is more chillingly relevant as well as superior to the new Amazon Prime Video series Hunters which conjures up a contemporary group of Jewish vigilantes who hunt down and eliminate former Nazis living in the U.S.
One hesitates to imagine a period of proto-fascism in the world’s richest democracy.  However another four years of Trumpism would make that more plausible given his autocratic instincts. The following is taken from the essay by George Packer, “The President is Winning His War on American Institutions” in the April 2020 of The Atlantic:
Tom Malinowski, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey and former State Department official, was born in Communist Poland to a family that had lived through World War II. “I’ve often asked myself the alternative-history question of what might happen if the Nazis took over America,” he told me. “Who would become, out of opportunism or maybe even shared outlook, one of them? Some people would. Most people would keep their head down. Some number of people would be courageous and do useful things. A smaller number would do recklessly useful things. And then some number, hopefully also small, would take advantage of the situation to help themselves.”

The Platform (Spain 2019, Netflix)  B
This very bizarre Spanish horror film directed by Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia was the audience favorite in the Midnight Madness program of last year’s Toronto film festival.  The setting controlled by a “Vertical Self-Management Center” is some prison-like structure “The Pit” with several hundred levels.  It has only three classes: the top, the bottom, and those who fall.  At the top there’s a gourmet feast. This is lowered on a concrete platform through the levels, stopping for two minutes at every level for the two inmates on each to grab and gorge what they can. Temperature changes police violaters who could be cooked or frozen.  We start on level 48 with the one character who stays throughout, a disheveled man named Goreng (Ivan MassaguĂ©) who’s reading Don Quixote. Goreng gets bounced among different levels and companions.  Throw in some hallucinations and ravings, a “panna cotta”, and news that “the child is the message”. Is this supposed to be an allegory on social inequality or just plain bonkers?  Congratulations if you have the stomach for it.   
Lost Girls (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B+
Directed by noted documentarian Liz Garbus, this dramatization of true events is based on co-writer Robert Kolker’s 2013 book “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery” which discussed the still unsolved case of the Long Island serial killer who murdered at least 16 people (female sex workers).  Amy Ryan stars as Mari Gilbert, the mother of one of the victims Shannan, who is indefatigable in agitating for a proper investigation of her daughter’s disappearance. There are also fine performances from Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Laurence as Mari’s two younger daughters, and Gabriel Byrne as a senior police officer. 
The Last Thing He Wanted (U.S. 2020 Netflix)  C
Although based on a 1996 novel by Joan Didion, and directed by Dee Rees who made the acclaimed 2017 feature Mudbound, this is a confusing misfire.  The setting is the Reagan era of the mid-1980s when the conflicts in Central America were roiling and covert support to the rebel “Contras” attacking the Sandinistas in Nicaragua presaged what became the Iran-Contra scandal.  Anne Hathaway plays an intrepid reporter Elena McMahon who wants to cover that action instead of the 1984 Republican primaries.  Somehow her dodgy ailing dad Dick (Willem Dafoe) gets her involved in some kind of illegal arms for drugs scheme. Elena gets drawn into a dangerous regional web that includes encounters with a U.S. government operative (CIA?) Treat Morrison (blankly played by Ben Affleck) and a resort owner Paul Schuster (Toby Jones) somewhere in Costa Rica I think.  By that time the potential for a gripping political thriller is lost.

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BOOK LAUNCH!

BOOK LAUNCH! 


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