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MayDay Update on Viewing Options in a Time of Covid-19

Let me begin by noting that the film world has lost two great actors this year—Kirk Douglas (103!) and Max Von Sydow (90).
The pandemic has been a huge boon to online/streaming platforms … Netflix is now worth more than ExxonMobil. (Amazon is valued at US$1.2 trillion and rising.)
The best series on Netflix is the German Babylon Berlin (A+), but Tiger King (A) frenzy has been the biggest boost to ratings: 
On another Netflix series Freud (A) check out this analysis:
Planet of the Humans  revisited
On April 22 I sent around a viewing link for this provocative documentary. My original review is below, but be aware that the film has stirred much controversy and sparked furious denunciations, including by Canada’s Green Party. See the following links:
Original Review:
This provocative documentary narrated by writer-director-producer and veteran environmental activist Jeff Gibbs, which premiered at last summer’s Traverse City Film Festival (organized by Michael Moore, who is an executive producer), is, with the addition of a few brief postcripts, available for free viewing at the above YouTube link as of the eve of April 22, the 50th “Earth Day”.  Its overriding message can be summed up by the end-credits quote from Rachel Carson in 1962: “Humanity is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery—not of nature, but of itself.” (Early on the film also includes a clip of a 1958 warning about the threat of global warming.)
            You might say that humans have become the ultimate invasive species, lacking in self-restraint and becoming their own worst enemy through unsustainable overconsumption.  Population growth contributes to that but this is not a neo-Malthusian lament.  Rather Gibbs exposes what he sees as the many flaws and contradictions in the promotion of “green energy” and supposedly “renewable” energy alternatives which he sees as often driven by the false promises of tech fixes and “green illusions”. (Is the electrical power for an electric vehicle produced by burning fossil fuels? What about habitat destruction to produce woodchips for burning?)  Gibbs especially goes after biomass and biofuels developments.  He also challenges some well-known names, NGOs, and instruments in the environmental movement (e.g., Bill McKibben, Al Gore, the Sierra Club, ostensibly green financial funds).  A speeded-up sequence attacks the mining and manufacture of components (including rare earth elements) required for solar panels, wind turbines, and the like. In this age of the “Anthropocene” (although Gibbs doesn’t use the term), sustainability requires a fundamental transformation in our systems of growth-promoting production and consumption, not a “greenwashing” of what Gibbs calls “cancerous capitalism”.  Arguing that “less must become the new more”, he is deeply skeptical of anything less.       
The Plot Against America (HBO/Crave 2020, first season complete) A
Check out:
Coronavirus, Explained (Netflix, April 2020)  A
This short documentary, narrated by J.K. Simmonds, is obviously timely.  Covid-19 is the disease caused by the virus SARS-COVI-2, which is a “zoonotic” virus, meaning one of animal origin.  There are millions of potential viruses: Indeed it’s stated that: “Mother Nature is the ultimate bioterrorist.”  The previous “SARS” outbreak which notably affected Canada (and Toronto in particular) was more deadly but infected only about 8,000 people.  This new virus is vastly more widespread including through asymptomatic transmission. The world should have been, but clearly was not, adequately prepared for this pandemic. (Compare the neglect of public health to the trillions of dollars in military spending.) This is a good succinct introduction that raises important concerns.
Money Heist: The Phenomenon (Spain 2020, Netflix) A+
This hour-long documentary about the compulsively watchable Spanish series is a must-see, but only after viewing the 38 episodes of the four seasons to date.  Many thanks to journalist and author Andrew Cohen for putting me on to it!  The first two parts on Spanish TV cover the hostage-taking robbery of Spain’s Royal Mint.  The original 2017 TV series was flagging when Netflix acquired it and then created two more parts that have become the platform’s biggest non-English language draw.  Parts 3 and 4 involve the takeover of the Bank of Spain and its gold reserves (though it retains the “Casa de Papel” Spanish title, not “Casa del Oro”). The infusion of money is apparent in multiple locations and first-rate production.
These parts also double down on the anti-system vibe of “resistance” in opposition to the torturing deep state and its security forces.  Symbolism includes the colour red; the recurrent singing of the Italian anti-fascist anthem “Bella Ciao”; the Dali masks (a surrealist nod to “Anonymous”?). Some of this has caught on as an image of popular protest (even in Saudi Arabia!).  But while I am familiar with Spain and the Spanish left, I didn’t actually buy that suggestion for a second.  The heavily armed hostage-taking robber gang includes psychopaths and Serbian war criminals. Their caper may play to the crowd but they (including the occasional female narrator “Tokyo”) are horny, selfish, and terrorizing. As well, the external criminal mastermind, the soft-spoken “professor” (of “ethics”!), is hardly a “Robin Hood” figure (his motives appear to be personal; he never says a word about socioeconomic justice issues), and although he seduces the first female lead police inspector, he proves less than omniscient. (The surprise ending of the last episode virtually guarantees there has to be a fifth season.)  Fortunately such caveats and large suspensions of disbelief don’t detract from making the propulsive action an immensely entertaining viewing experience. You don’t have to fall for the beguiling robber rogues to keep watching them.  More, please!     
 The Innocence Files (U.S. 2020, Netflix, nine episodes) A
This is an excellent series that covers in detail cases of wrongly conviction drawn from those which have been pursued by The Innocence Project (  There are three episodes each devoted to three main areas of faulty judicial processes involving evidence, witness testimony, and prosecution conduct. The cases raise issues that are examined in depth, as in the feature-length seventh episode directed by veteran documentarian Alex Gibney.  For more analysis see:
Give Up Tomorrow (U.S./UK 2011, , on Kanopy) A
I’ve waited almost a decade to see this superb documentary which was a Tribeca festival audience award winner among many other awards. The case involves the July 1997 disappearance, rape and murder of two Chiong sisters on the Philippine island of Cebu.  A young man Juan “Paco” Larrañaga and six others were arrested and charged with the crime. Although the Chiong family had ties to a drug lord, and Paco had strong alibis, he was convicted in a gross miscarriage of justice that had political overtones.  In 2004 his life sentence was also elevated to death on an appeal, spurred by the victims’ mother, to the Philippine Supreme Court.  Paco also holds Spanish citizenship through his father.  Paco’s case was taken up by Fr. Robert Reyes in the Philippines and internationally by the Spanish government, Amnesty International, Fair Trials International, and the UN Human Rights Commission.  Fortunately the Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006, and in 2009, 12 years after Paco’s arrest,  under a Prisoner Exchange Treaty he was transferred to a Spanish prison where he remains (more details at:       
Sergio (U.S. 2020, Netflix, ) B+
This Sergio is definitely no relation to the fictional “Sergio” that is the real name of the criminal mastermind “professor” in the Spanish Netflix series “Money Heist”.  Directed by Greg Barker, it is a dramatization of the life and death of Brazilian diplomat Sérgio Vieria de Mello, a renowned UN troubleshooting envoy who had been the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and was a prospective candidate to be UN Secretary General.  The handsome, charismatic de Mello (well played by Wagner Moura) died in the horrific August 2003 suicide bombing of the Canal Hotel UN mission headquarters in Baghdad, an attack carried out by Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which subsequently became the so-called “Islamic State”.  (Beyond the ravages of civil war and ISIS, the agonies of Iraq continue.  With a dysfunctional government that has depended heavily on oil revenues it is a collapsed failed state.) 
            At de Mello’s side is his chief aide, the stalwart veteran Gil Loescher (Brian O’Byrne), as de Mello insists on maintaining UN independence from the Coalition Authority and its American supremo Paul Bremer (Bradley Whitford).  The film alternates between agonizing scenes of the bombing victims trapped under rubble and moments in de Mello’s public career and extramarital private life—while in East Timor he met and fell in love with an Argentinian Carolina Larriera (Ana de Armas) who became his companion. The dramatization can be faulted for somewhat sentimentalizing and dwelling too much on this romance.  
It’s worth noting that Barker directed a superior 2009 documentary, also titled simply Sergio, which drew on the book by Samantha Power who became President Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations. I saw it at that year’s Sundance film festival and this is what I wrote about it at the time:
“Drawing from Samantha Power’s tremendous 2008 book Chasing the Flame: Sergio de Mello and the Fight to Save the World, she, producer Ben Affleck and Barker have done wonders to bring to the screen the fast-lane life and tragic death of this Brazilian radical turned top UN troubleshooter, whom Power describes as “a cross between James Bond and Robert Kennedy”.  The coming of age and career background quickly builds to the film’s focus on the dramatic events of a hot August 19, 2003 in Baghdad when a suicide truck bomber destroyed much of the post-invasion UN headquarters.  Sergio had been plucked from his post as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and sent there, with Bush’s blessing, to start picking up the pieces. Instead he died after hours under collapsed rubble, stoic and agnostic to the end.  Unsparing, engrossing, wrenching, devastating.”
The Longest War (U.S. 2020, Crave/Showtime
Also directed by Greg Barker this new documentary does a decent job of conveying key stages in America’s troubled relationship with Afghanistan going back to 1979 and then President Jimmy Carter’s condemnation of the Soviet invasion of this “graveyard of empires”. The CIA played a major role in what followed.  The U.S. supplied arms to Islamist fighters supported by Pakistan but effectively abandoned the country during the 1990s civil war that produced the Taliban takeover, until the country became the base of Bin Laden and al-Qaeda for its attacks on the U.S. culminating in 9/11 and the “war on terror”.  Unfortunately the 2003 invasion of Iraq then diverted critical attention from Afghanistan and the Taliban resurgence ushered in years of protracted conflict.  There is mention of policies under successive presidencies and the repeated desire to bring major American military involvement to a conclusion, most recently the Trump administration’s apparent agreement with the Taliban.  While it’s obvious that a lot has gone wrong, how and why isn’t explored in any depth.  A few specific moments are mentioned such as the brief 2015 Taliban takeover of the provincial capital of Kunduz.  We hear from several CIA analysts, journalists (notably Peter Bergen. Steve Coll), the founder of Tolo TV, and several survivors of a Taliban attack on the American University in Kabul.  Unsurprisingly in a film of less than 90 minutes the troubled history is selective and condensed.  It’s also told from a solely American perspective. There’s no mention of the role of NATO (much less Canada) or of the United Nations (despite that Barker has also just directed the new feature Sergio—reviewed above). It would take a much longer series to do justice to the plight of Afghans since at least the 1970s that has resulted in so much suffering, loss, and millions of refugees.
Tigertail (U.S. 2020, Netflix, )  B+
Writer-director Alan Yang has fashioned a bitterwseet story about a young Taiwanese factory worker Pin-Jui (Tzi Ma) who in the 1960s agrees to a loveless arranged marriage to the daughter of the factory manager in order to immigrate to the United States.  He abandons his mother and the girl he really loves Yuan. But America does not bring the hoped-for success.  In middle-age Pin-Jui is divorced and has a testy relationship with an adult daughter Angela.  To attend his mother’s funeral he makes a journey of memory and regret back to his hometown of Huwei (the ‘Tigertail" of the title).   In each life there is a time to reflect on past choices and might have beens.
Inca Island in the Sky (Episode 6 of Albert Lin’s “Lost Cities”, 2019, National Geographic on Disney+, A+
This is a terrific series led by intrepid scientist and explorer Dr. Albert Lin ( who doesn’t let losing a right foot and lower leg in a 2016 accident hold him back.  Given my postponed “charity challenge” trek of the Inca trail, I was particularly interested in this Peruvian episode which visits Machu Picchu and other Andean sites of pre-modern civilization. Other episodes investigate ruins of the Knight Templar fortress in Acre, Israel, and in Jordan the remnants of Nabatean civilization in Petra (which I visited in 2014) and earlier sites.  
Bull (U.S. 2019, Video on Demand from May 1)  A
I have not been so impressed with a raw drama connected to rodeo life since Chloe Zhao’s The Rider from 2017 which earned many deserved awards.  This gritty Texas-set story (filmed in Austin, Oklahoma, and Colorado) also has a female director Annie Silverstein, as well as an unaffected naturalism and realistic rodeo scenes.  The central character is not a cowboy but a 14-year old girl Kris (an amazing performance by Amber Havard) who lives with her little sister and is cared for by their grandmother while the mother is in prison. Their neighbor is an African American man Abe (Rob Morgan) who works the professional bullriding circuit.  It’s not a happy arrangement. The family dog gets at Abe’s chickens.  Then Kris and teenage friends break into Abe’s place while he’s away on a weekend and leave a mess behind.  Instead of having Kris charged, Abe makes a deal with her to clean up and help out.  There will be more hard knocks in store. Abe gets injured and is reduced to working local rodeos.   Kris’s mom punches a guard and has her release pushed back.   Still the rapport that develops between Abe and Kris (she even gives bullriding technique a try) makes coping with life’s adversity a bit more tolerable.
A Secret Love (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A
In 1947 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, two farm girls, Terry Donahue and Pat Henschel, met at a hockey rink.  Terry would go on to become a catcher with the Peoria Redwings of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (the subject of the 1992 drama “A League of Their Own”). Pat would join her in Chicago where they became a lesbian couple, their relationship hidden from family back in Canada to whom they were “cousins” or “aunties”.  The story is told by director Chris Bolan, a grandnephew. Now elderly and frail, Terry suffers from Parkinson’s to the great concern of Diana, a devoted niece from Edmonton  Despite initial resistance from Pat, the couple is persuaded to sell their home, move to a retirement residence, and eventually come back to Canada to be close to family.  After some seven decades together, they also get officially married. This is a beautiful story of a forbidden love that endures and ends with accepting embrace. But to its credit it is also frank about the rough patches and emotional tensions that sometimes erupted along the journey.    
Circus of Books (U.S. 2019, Neflix) B+
Director Rachel Mason is the daughter of a now elderly couple Barry and Karen Mason who owned this once thriving bookstore in Los Angeles catering to an LGBTQ clientele. Their business of selling pornographic material, which started when they became distributors for Larry Flint’s Hustler magazine, made for challenges, parental and legal.  To say the least, it’s an unusual family story.  A historical footnote perhaps (both locations had closed by February 2019), but with a personal touch that harks back to a bygone era.   
Extraction (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  C+
In this violent action thriller from director Sam Hargrave, Aussie hunk Chris Hemsworth (he plays “Thor” in the “Avengers” superhero franchise) is Tyler Rake, a tough-as-nails mercenary hired to extract the son of a Mumbai drug lord kidnapped by a rival crime boss.  The screenplay is by Joe Russo who co-authored the graphic novel on which the story is based, though the killing zone has been transferred from Paraguay to the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka.   As the body count rises (but who’s counting?) Rake is a one-man lethal weapon though not immortal. Shed no tears. 
Spenser Confidential (U.S. 2020, Netflix) C+
For some reason this is apparently the most streamed feature on Netflix.  Peter Berg helms the cops-and-crime thriller set in Boston and based on a novel Wonderland.  Mark Wahlberg is the titular Spenser, an ex-cop from “Southie” who’s done time in prison for beating up a superior officer.  Spenser connects with old friend Henry Simoli (Alan Arkin), an aging boxing coach to an African America prospect named Hawk (Winston Duke). More trouble follows when a cop is murdered and Spenser becomes a suspect amid a smell of corruption.  While the action does have its moments, the occasional female associations like the humour are mostly incidental to the B-movie territory.


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