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A Mid-Summer Viewing Menu

Cinephiles mourned the loss of the great Italian composer Ennio Morricone who died at age 91 earlier this month, especially remembered for his iconic film scores for the Clint Eastwood “spaghetti westerns” of the 1960s and for “The Mission” among other classics.  Also on the music front, although my last post was quite critical of the Netflix series “The Politician”, the best thing about it is to have introduced a wide audience to Ben Platt who has the title role.  Platt, who has been on stage since childhood and became a Broadway star, is a supremely talented musician, singer, and songwriter.  Check out the Netflix special Ben Platt Live from Radio City Music Hall, a fantastic performance, immensely appealing and candid, recorded last September.  As the “politician”, Platt’s character is determined to become president. So my favorite Platt quote is: “I’m counting the days until Trump is just a stain on history …”.  On the acting side, Platt has joined an 18-year project by master filmmaker Richard Linklater. As with Boyhood (filmed over 12 years and released 2014) I’m sure it will be worth the wait.
High Wire (Canada, National Film Board, 2019, watch at: A
This excellent National Film Board documentary directed by Claude Guilmain, now free to stream on the NFB website, delves into the backstory to Canada’s decision not to participate in the March 2003 invasion of Iraq which would prove so disastrous with harmful consequences that continue to this day.  In the context of the George W. Bush administration’s “global war on terror” there was huge pressure on Canada, as neighbor and ally, to go along.  That was resisted by then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien who insisted that any offensive action would require explicit UN Security Council approval.  Ultimately it was his decision about which he speaks frankly and forcefully. Although Canada was not a Council member, our then UN ambassador Paul Heinbecker speaks eloquently to Canada’s influence behind the scenes. Other close advisors and commentators interviewed add context.  This was probably the most momentous foreign policy decision of recent decades, particularly popular in Quebec. (It’s also clear that then Leader of the Opposition Stephen Harper wanted Canada to participate in the war.) 
            I vividly recall these tense times. When the invasion started on March 19 (also my mom’s 90th birthday), I was a personal advisor to then Foreign Minister Bill Graham for his cross-country “dialogue of foreign policy”.  The “war on terror” and Iraq overshadowed everything.  The film doesn’t tell the whole story.  Graham wasn’t interviewed and he was the principal interlocutor with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.  There were a lot of dimensions to this crisis. What the film usefully conveys is how the “highwire” act of diplomacy can be exercised, and how Canada can take a principled stand even when that means standing up to an aggressive, indeed bellicose, American administration. We do have an option. See more at:     
Hamilton (U.S. 2020, on Disney+, A
Director Thomas Kail’s filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed Broadway smash-hit musical [] was not due to be released until October of next year. But with all live performance venues closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Disney put it out on the eve of the Fourth of July holiday weekend, thereby also driving up subscriptions to the streaming service. Although lacking the ambience of seeing the production live, the fluid camerawork affords a perspective as good as and often better than that of the best seat in the house. 
            Miranda himself takes on the title role of the American revolutionary figure Alexander Hamilton, an orphan from the West Indies who would become a founding father of the republic, its first Secretary of the Treasury, and author of some of the “Federalist Papers”. Hamilton was also a controversial figure. He married into a slave-owning family, had extra-marital affairs, and would be killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, three years after his eldest son had also died in a duel. The musical, which boasts a phenomenal multiracial cast and energetic choreography with a contemporary vibe, portrays Hamilton as pro-immigrant and anti-slavery.  The historical accuracy of this hip version of Hamilton is certainly open to dispute (on the controversy see:  Those questions aside, however, this polished production offers a rousing and highly entertaining experience even when viewed at home … with no booking months in advance at stratospheric prices required.
Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado (U.S. 2020, Netflix,  A-
I confess I had never heard of Walter Mercado before watching this fascinating profile directed by Cristini Costantini and Kareem Tabsch.  However it’s clear that through decades of television appearances the Puerto Rican astrologer became a cult figure for many millions of Latinos. Early in the film we see the “Hamilton” playwright and Broadway star Lin-Manuel Miranda relating how he grew up with Mercado, and late in the film when Miranda gets to meet him he gushes like an emotional fan.  Somehow the androgynous effeminate “gender nonconforming” Mercado was embraced by a homophobic Catholic culture. Mercado started out as a dancer and actor before becoming a television personality in which he created his own fantasy world, appearing in extravagant bejeweled costumes, flowing robes and capes that outdo Liberace at his most ostentatious. (The effect isn’t “trans” or “drag” but it’s definitely outré and eye-catching.)  
            Dispensing positive astrological messages of love and peace, Mercado also established a lucrative psychic “hotline” but encountered troubles with a controlling business manager that led to what he describes as a “legal nightmare”. Health woes included a heart attack. For years he disappeared from public view though had recently re-emerged as a social media phenomenon.
Along with archival footage and a few clever bits of animation, much of the film centres on Mercado at home in the Puerto Rican mansion he shared with longtime assistant Willy Accosta.  The filmmakers also followed him to a 2019 Miami museum 50th anniversary celebratory event where the always flamboyant Mercado is carried in on a throne and mobbed by admirers. A few months later Mercado died at age 87.  His is a most unusual story that deserves telling, whether or not written in the stars.
The Old Guard (U.S. 2020, Netflix) C-
Adapting a 2017 comic-book series, Gina Price-Bythewood helms this $70 million ultra-violent sci-fi thriller that runs over two hours, though the last 10 minutes or so are end credits adding to the premise that a band of “immortal” (though not eternal) warriors for what they deem right have intervened throughout human history. Charlize Theron plays the many centuries old kick-ass female leader of the pack, Andromache (“Andy”), accompanied by three dudes: Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli).  The first rescue mission is in the conflict zone of South Sudan where the team survives an ambush. Next stop is Afghanistan where an African American female marine named Nile (KiKi Layne) emerges from a fatal throat slashing to be the newest “immortal” member of the team that has a headquarters outside Paris for some reason. Their activities are being followed by an African American chap named Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), with a vague allusion to the CIA.  More menacing is the interest of a Big Pharma baddie Merrick (Harry Melling) who hunts and captures several “immortals” to discover their genetic secret. (Imagine the “live forever” profit potential!) There’s a suggestion of betrayal by Booker before Merrick and his goons get snuffed.  It’s a pileup of crazed scenarios spiced with a few historic flashbacks (one to witch trials deals with the unfortunate fate of Andy’s former female accomplice).  This is one of those action movies that demands a high tolerance for nonsense. And though they stand on guard, laments one immortal, the world is “getting worse”.  No pandemic relief to be found here!


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