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Ides of May Update on Viewing During a Pandemic


Viewing at home has never been more popular in these times.  On TV, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is a treasure trove of older classics.  A while back I watched the four-hour 1963 epic Cleopatra that starred Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Possibly the most expensive movie ever made, the extravagant scene of Cleopatra’s entry in Rome (which actually happened in 46BC) is something to behold.  For deprived theatre goers, Britain’s National Theatre has been presenting acclaimed full-length plays every Thursday on its YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUDq1XzCY0NIOYVJvEMQjqw?sub_confirmation=1 (free to watch for one week).  The May 7 offering was Antony & Cleopatra with the great Ralph Fiennes.
Here are more viewing choices:
Capital in the Twenty-First Century (France/New Zealand 2019, Kino Lorber on demand) A
French economist Thomas Piketty just turned 49 a few days ago but has already produced two of the most important works of political economy of recent decades.  Capital in the Twenty-First Century, first published in French in 2013, became an international bestseller. (I’ve also read the second, Capital and Ideology, an even more expansive and impressive analysis of inequality regimes and egalitarian remedies, published in English translation early this year.) Director Justin Pemberton’s documentary isn’t a substitute for reading the book but does offer a bracing introduction to Piketty’s themes of how to address increasing socioeconomic inequities.  With theatres closed, the documentary can be viewed online until June 5 via the Toronto HotDocs virtual cinema portal at:    
See also these reviews:
More on the controversy over Planet of the Humans
Hollywood (2020, 7 episodes, Netflix) B+
This imaginative alternate history of the Hollywood scene in the early postwar period, which liberally mixes fact and fancy, has elicited very divided reactions.  Mine is overall positive.  Fictional characters and situations are introduced alongside recognizable names and places. The studio system narrative plays with layers of sexist, racist and secret gay life tropes.  A service station run by Ernie West (Dylan McDermott) and staffed by handsome young men is a cover for a prostitution ring that swings both ways.  Aspiring actor Jack Costello (David Corenswet) becomes the client of the studio boss’s wife Avis Amberg (Patti LuPone in fine form). African-American screenwriter Archie (Jeremy Pope) becomes the lover of Rock Hudson (Jake Picking).  Jim Parsons plays Henry Willson, a sleazy weasel-like gay agent.  After studio boss Ace Amberg (Rob Reiner) expires, Avis manages to seize control. A further subplot saves the production footage of a Hollywood tragedy “Meg”, written by Archie, with big roles for Jack and Camille (Laura Harrier), the African-American wife of its director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss). Melodramas intersect, culminating in a final episode’s celebratory Academy Awards night that never was.  Suspension of belief underlies the satisfaction. For more comment see:
The Half of It  (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A
This excellent semi-autobiographical feature from writer-director Alice Wu (only her second after a 2004 debut) opens with a bit of animation and a quote from Plato’s Symposium: “Love is simply the name for the desire and pursuit of the whole.”  Set in the fictional town of Squahamish, Ellie Chu (Leah Lewis) is a bright high-school student who converses in Chinese with her widower father.  She earns money by writing papers for classmates.  A tongue-tied jock named Paul (Daniel Diemer) pays her $50 to compose love letters to the lovely Aster Flores (Alexxis Lemire).  The thing is, Aster is also Ellie’s secret object of desire. Young adult romantic dramedy acquires a queer twist, adding clever literary references (Cyrano, Sartre, Wilde) and a cinematic nod to “Wings of Desire” (my favorite movie of all time). It’s a winning combination that earned the top prize at April’s Tribeca festival (although the event was cancelled, its jury reviewed all selections and awarded prizes).   
Becoming (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B+
Director Nadia Hallgren’s documentary is an admiring profile of former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama who grew up on the south side of Chicago before becoming a successful lawyer.  She met future husband and president Barack Obama at Harvard.  A good deal of the film follows Michelle’s tour for her eponymous bestselling 2018 memoir. We meet her mother and brother, and her closest associates.  We get glimpses into the challenges of political campaigns, and of course those of being married with two teenage daughters to the first African-American U.S. president.  The Obamas were sometimes the target of racist invective and subject to relentless scrutiny. Although there are no startling revelations, this portrait of Michelle is a reminder of when the White House was marked by a sense of intelligence, composure and grace. (Barack makes only a cameo appearance in the film.  He has recently spoken out on the tragedy of the U.S. pandemic response:
Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story (U.S. 2020, https://www.birmanproductions.com/, Netflix) B
Director Daniel Birman’s documentary tells the story of Nashville teenager Cyntoia Brown who was only 16 in 2004 when she shot and killed a real-estate agent Johnny Allen in his home.  At the time, she was a disturbed runaway engaged in prostitution for a violent pimp and using drugs.  Her case was moved to adult court where the jury, unconvinced by a dubious self-defence claim, convicted her of robbery and first degree murder.  Under harsh Tennessee law that meant a life sentence with no parole for 51 years.  In prison Cyntoia became a university student and attracted celebrity advocates for clemency.  We meet her biological mother (who indicates a family history of abuse and mental illness) and her African-American adoptive mother. But the larger focus is on the work of lawyers appealing on her behalf.   (They make the case that she suffered from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.)  Years of legal representations were unsuccessful until 2019 when outgoing governor Bill Haslam commuted her sentence to 15 years plus ten of parole.  She was released from prison in August 2019.  While Brown’s transformation is remarkable, and 51 years without parole is a manifestly unjust sentence for a minor to receive, the film gives rather short shrift to the murder victim, glossing over some controversial aspects.  (For more details on the case see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyntoia_Brown.)




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