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More Viewing Options into the Pandemic Summer

I’ve raved about the German series Babylon Berlin on Netflix.  Thanks to Hugh Finsten for pointing me to other terrific German series on Crave: Deutschland 83 and Deutschland 86.
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody alerted me to free screenings available on the Tubi platform (  There are 18 films by German master Werner Herzog. (I caught up on the anarchic Even Dwarfs Started Small from 1971 and the absurdist 1977 feature Stroszek.).  Included is Aguirre: The Wrath of God, among my 2018 book’s 20 greatest films of all time.  
Influence (Canada/South Africa 2020, available on CBC Gem and documentary channel) B+
Directed by Richard Poplak and Diana Neille, this probing exposé of the dangers of public relations manipulation was one of the HotDocs selections picked up for broadcast by CBC in May. The villain of the piece is Timothy Bell, head honcho of the firm Bell Pottinger.  Clients on the right included Margaret Thatcher and Chile’s Pinochet.  But the firm also worked for post-Soviet Russian oligarchs and the corrupt Zuma government in South Africa fomenting racial discord while targeting white “monopoly capitalists”.  (Sanctioned for unethical tactics the firm went bankrupt in 2017. More at:  Bell died in 2019.)  
The Arrest  (Canada 2020, TVO, available at: ) A
There have been searing documentaries on wrongful convictions and imprisonments.  This one, by writer-director Martin Himel, examines the potentially devastating effects of wrongful arrests, starting with the police misconduct that occurred during the Toronto G20 protests in 2010. See also:
White Lines (Netflix series 2020, 10 episodes)  B
The premise is that a young woman Zoe leaves her family to go to the party island of Ibiza to investigate the murder 20 years earlier of her older brother Axel Collins, a fair-haired reckless Manchester lad who became a celebrated DJ.  His body is found in Almería in southern Spain (famously the location for “spaghetti westerns” and other film shoots).  Implicated is the wealthy Calafat family while Zoe falls for a bouncer named “Boxer”.  The narrative seethes with sex and violence, drug deals, homicides, hedonism and harm as twists and turns get wilder and crazier. With dialogue in Spanish and English, it’s from the makers of “Money Heist” and “The Crown”, both of which I find more compelling.
Sunday’s Illness (Spain 2018, Netflix)  A
Thanks to Bob Miller for pointing me to this underrated gem which is the antithesis of a garish lurid production like “White Lines”.   From writer-director Ramón Salazar, this is slow cinema, unfolding within a bleak monochromatic landscape suffused with darkness, relying on internalized acting power and atmospheric lensing.  From the candlelit dinner at an opulent residence the aging elegant chatelaine Anabel (Susi Sánchez) accedes to the request of Chiara (Bárbara Lennie), the daughter she abandoned many years earlier—which is simply to spend 10 days with her.  They go to Chiara’s solitary hermit-like abode, deep in the woods near the border with France, where the afflictions of this damaged lost soul become apparent.  Although male characters (a neighbour, her father) appear in several very brief scenes, this is a story of mother-daughter catharsis. The signs of deep emotional distress anticipate an ending that is nonetheless profoundly shocking.
Exploring Disney +
There is of course access to the vast library of Disney productions.  But the main attraction for me is access to the National Geographic channel’s wealth of excellent informational programming.  It’s not just nature documentaries.  In particular I highly recommend the recent series with explorer Dr. Albert Lin—“Lost Cities” and “Buried Secrets of the Bible”.
History 101 (U.S., 2020 Netflix series, 10 episodes)  B+
Thanks to film critic and Canadian Film Institute head Tom McSorley for noting this new series with episodes on subjects from fast food to nuclear power to AIDS. Each breezily-narrated segment, under 25 minutes, is like a condensed “Coles Notes” version. While easy to take issue with on particulars, including a U.S.-centric approach, these offer neat visual graphics and lots of fascinating facts.  More commentary at:
Space Force (U.S., 2020, Netflix, 10 episodes) B
Yet another new series this one doesn’t rise much above the level of a silly sitcom but it does have the talents of Steve Carell (also a co-writes) as the corny Air Force general who heads the U.S. outfit promising to return Americans to the moon, and John Malkovich as his cranky science advisor. With situations ranging from goofy to loony, dumb to daffy, it makes one wonder how the U.S. ever managed to put men on the moon over a half century ago.  Cue the guffaws and groans.  (More comment at:
The Great (U.S. 2020, 10 episodes, Amazon Prime Video) B+
Almost as silly is this Hulu series of an “occasional true story” following the 18th century German princess Catherine (a pert Elle Fanning) after she weds the young Russian emperor Peter (Nicholas Hoult), a callow perfidious simpleton whose only interest is to produce a male heir.  Catherine of course has other more progressive ideas that entail surviving court intrigues while plotting a takeover of the imperial throne. Very unlike the 2019 HBO miniseries “Catherine the Great” that starred Helen Mirren in the title role, this is a ribald and often ridiculous costume drama that mostly plays history as farce—with crude action, dialogue, and “huzzahs” to match.  Still it’s an entertaining if hardly enlightening diversion. [More comment at:
Sword of Trust (U.S. 2019 Netflix, B+
The cinema community was saddened by the untimely death of director Lynn Shelton on May 16 (unrelated to the pandemic).  She was associated with the improvisational “mumblecore” movement in American indie film  Cynthia (Jillian Bell) and Mary Michaela Watkins) are a lesbian couple in Alabama when Cynthia’s sole inheritance from a grandfather is a Confederate army sword linked to a shadowy conspiracy network promoting the belief that the South won the Civil War. The couple’s attempt to sell the sword to skeptical pawnshop owner Mel (Marc Maron, Shelton’s life partner)—whose dimwit assistant is a flat-earther—sets up further misadventure in the online world of far-right conspiracy fantasists willing to offer big bucks for the sword.  It’s played for comic effect (though we keep being reminded that America’s racist legacy is no joke).   
The Lovebirds (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  B-
With theatres closed this went straight to streaming.  As a rom-com it’s not up to the standard of director Michael Showalter’s 2017 hit The Big Sick which also starred Kumail Nanjiani.  The “lovebirds” are a squabbling biracial couple, Jibran (Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae), who hit a fleeing cyclist with their car and get ensnared in a nonsensical criminal plot involving a secret political conspiracy and a masked sex cult.  You just have to go with the flow.  But as talented as Nanjiani and Rae are (both have hit HBO series, Nanjiani with “Silicon Valley: and Rae with “Insecure”), their comic chemistry isn’t enough to redeem this madcap misadventure.
A Thousand Cuts (U.S./ The Philippines 2020, A
*Available to stream at Hot Docs Film Festival Online until June 24.
This in-depth documentary from writer-director Ramona S. Diaz profiles how Maria Ressa and the other intrepid journalists of the independent female-run new site “Rappler” have challenged the authoritarian rule of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, a vulgarian whose modus operandi bears similarity to the Trumpian playbook in attacking media critics, weaponizing social media, and other techniques of political manipulation and control. By exposing how Duterte’s deadly war on drugs has become a war on the poor through thousands of extrajudicial killings, the journalists honoured abroad for their courage risk vilification and death threats at home.  The title refers to how a democracy dies through “a thousand cuts”.          
The Trip to Greece (UK 2020, Elevation Pictures virtual cinema)  A
[*I was able to watch this online via the portal of Ottawa’s repertory Mayfair theatre.]
I have greatly enjoyed director Michael Winterbottom’s “trip” series that began in 2010 with an in-country excursion followed by trips to Italy (2014) and Spain (2017).  In each the duo of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play alter-ego versions of themselves as they engage in clever chatty repartee and dueling impersonations (the Marlon Brando is a highlight) mostly over tables of delectable dining (showing dashes of kitchen preparation). Bits of Greek mythology and history are dispensed as their odyssey visits destinations driving or by sea (including Leonard Cohen’s former haunt of Hydra).   Coogan encounters a “refugee” guy from a scene in his 2019 film Greed.  He has a brief black-and-white dream sequence suggesting Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.  That’s a prelude to getting news from his son that his dad has died, abruptly cutting short his trip while adding a poignant pang of grief to this possibly past episode.  Meanwhile Brydon stays on joined by his wife. In this “work of fiction” the ephemeral competitive delights of the human comedy give way to deeper familial bonds.  If this is the last note, it rings the truest.  


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