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More Online Viewing Options -Canada Day Edition

The already vast amount of streaming content keeps growing. Some is on established specialty TV channels like HBO.  I’m grateful to it for showing the wondrous 2018 Quebec feature Une Colonie (A Colony), from first-time director Geneviève Dulude-De Celles, which has garnered numerous awards including best film at the 2019 Canadian Screen Awards. I remember watching “Perry Mason” as a kid with Raymond Burr in the title role.  Check out HBO’s new 8-episode version with Matthew Rhys as “Perry” and Canadian Tatiana Maslany as “Sister Alice”.  Also just arrived on HBO is David France’s searing Welcome to Chechnya ( about LGBTQ persecution, particularly deadly in this ravaged Russian province ruthlessly ruled by Putin’s chosen strongman.  Amid harrowing scenes France observes the courageous work of activists in rescuing endangered individuals and getting them out of Russia (Canada is a noted country of refuge).  This is guerilla-style filmmaking at its finest.
Here’s what else I’ve been watching:
Normal People (UK/Ireland 2019, 12 episodes, CBC Gem) A+
A BBC/Hulu production directed by Lenny Abrahamson (Room), this is one of the best young adult series ever made, thanks in large part to the superb sensitive acting of the two leads—Daisy Edgar Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell—and the excellent source material in Sally Rooney’s eponymous 2018 novel.  She’s also a co-screenwriter.  The setting take us through Ireland’s economic crisis and Rooney calls herself a “Marxist” but there are no heavy-handed polemics in this affecting story of falling in and out of love.  The closely-observed narrative is emotionally intense and sexually frank (including on Marianne’s several abusive relationships), without ever being exploitive.
The story begins when Marianne and Connell are schoolmates in small-town Ireland.  She is the vulnerable loner who throws herself into first love with a popular lad who is deep-voiced, hunky and highly intelligent.  Then she feels terribly abandoned when he takes someone else to the prom. Later at Trinity College, Dublin it’s Marianne who has blossomed with confidence while Connell is the one who struggles.  At first she’s living with a prominent student activist Gareth (played by Sebastian de Souza, who has the role of an early lover of Russian Empress Catherine in the Amazon Prime series “The Great”).  That is until Marianne forgives Connell and they have a passionate reunion, which again doesn’t last.  Their on-and-off relationship keeps evolving in uncertain directions while pulling us in. The intimacies and complexities, as raw and real as life itself, make us eager for the next chapter and where that will take both of them.  [*CBC Gem is free to stream at:  but an add-free “premium” subscription is $4.99/month.
More information on the series and episodes at:]
Artemis Fowl (U.S. 2020, Disney+)  C-
Also set in Ireland, and adapted from young adult material (the novels of Eoin Colfer) this fantasy falls flat (it could hardly be more opposite “Normal People” or less compelling), even with an admired actor Kenneth Branagh as director.  Artemis (Ferdia Shaw) is a kid genius whose rich dad (Colin Farrell), a supposed “criminal mastermind”, goes missing.  That leads to adventures in the fairy world—among the denizens of which is the white-haired “Commander Root” played by Dame Judy Dench.  There’s lots of mumbo jumbo about a mysterious magical object the “Aculos” but the story never captivates.  Disney’s mega-bucks spent on fantastical visuals are a wasted effort.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (Canada/Norway 2019, CBC Gem) A
I’ve been waiting many months to see this multiple award winner (including the $100,000 Rogers best film prize) since it premiered at the Berlin festival in February 2019. It’s finally on the streaming service of the CBC, one of the producing partners.
            Co-director and co-writer Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers also stars as Áila, a young Indigenous woman of mixed Canadian and Norwegian Sami heritage. On a Vancouver street she encounters a younger Indigenous woman Rosie (Violet Nelson) in distress, standing bruised and barefoot in the rain.  Off-screen an angry man can be heard yelling.  Suspecting a case of violent domestic abuse, Áila takes Rosie to her home, gets her cleaned up, and convinces her to go to a “safe house” women’s shelter. Overweight and pregnant, Rosie is both reticent and resistant.  She doesn’t trust acts of kindness. She swipes things and sometimes reacts negatively. In the cab to the shelter she spins a story about the two being sisters with Áila having an addiction problem. The world hasn’t been kind to Rosie and this intervention isn’t destined to have a happy outcome; in fact it leads back to a rather dark place.  Suffused with a low-key realism, shot on 16mm, the film unfolds as if in a real-time, continuous tracking shot—with a result as impressive as it is unsparing. 
The Bureau (France 2020, Sundance Now, Season 5, 10 episodes starting June 18)  A+
This fantastic French espionage series, “Le Bureau des Légendes“, explores the activities of and machinations within the French spy agency, the DSGE (Direction Générale de la Securité Extérieure).  Locations include North Africa, the Middle East, Iran, Central Asia, Russia, and Ukraine.  A key character is Guillaume Debailly (codenamed “Malotru”) whose misadventures after a Syrian deployment include being held hostage by Islamist militants and being targeted as a double agent. He’s played by noted actor and filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz.  In season four the great actor Mathieu Amalric joined the cast.  This new season is every bit as gripping, with the final two episodes helmed by acclaimed filmmaker Jacques Audiard.  [See:
Da 5 Bloods (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  A
This sprawling epic from director Spike Lee comes at a time when an America in the grip of a deadly pandemic is again seething with protests against systemic racial injustice. Importantly, it recalls the oft-overlooked legacy of the African-American experience of the Vietnam war. (Blacks were just over 10% of the U.S. population but made up nearly one-third of the deployed fighting forces. Then as now they bore disproportionate human costs.)  Lee pointedly bookends the drama with images from 1960s civil rights and antiwar struggles.
            The narrative centres on four African-American veterans—Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis), Melvin (Isiah Witlock Jr.) who return to present-day Vietnam on a dual mission: to find the body of their commander “Stormin’ Norman” (Chadwick Boseman) and to recover a stash of gold bars (a CIA payment) they had buried following a 1971 helicopter crash. The politically engaged Norman (“our Malcolm and our Martin”) is the fifth “blood” brother haunting the post-traumatic visions of Paul whom Lee makes a MAGA-hat-wearing Trump supporter. In a further twist, Paul quarrels with his son David (Jonathan Majors) who joins the group.  From an “Apocalypse Now” bar in Ho Chi Minh City (with its American fast-food franchises), a Vietnamese guide take them upriver (to the strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”) to begin the unearthing quest.  Into this Lee’s weaves many elements: the discovery by Otis of a Vietnamese daughter; the shady Frenchman (Jean Reno) who offers to convert the gold into cash; snippets of North Vietnamese propaganda aimed at “Black GIs”; the encounter with a French NGO trio (LAMB, “Love Against Mines and Bombs”); the ambush by a Vietnamese gang after finding the gold.  Lethal events include explosions and several shootouts as part of a violent catharsis that will nonetheless produce millions of dollars in contributions to political causes (including the “Black Lives Matter” movement.)
            Lee uses effective cinematic devices to convey an alternation between the wartime sequences—grainy with a retro/TV squarish aspect ratio—and current action in sharp widescreen.  He also has the same actors appear in both without any “de-aging” trickery, emphasizing how each still carries within himself a vivid reliving of the burden of the past.  This long complex movie was to have premiered at the cancelled Cannes film festival.  But the timing of its streaming release in the midst of a highly-charged and polarized American body politic makes an even more impactful connection between historic wrongs and those of today.  
My Darling Vivian (U.S. 2020,, video on demand)  A
The director of this excellent documentary Matt Riddlehoover is married to Dustin Tittle, a grandson of legendary country singer Johnny Cash and his first wife Vivian Liberto with whom he had four daughters before their divorce. They fell in love when he was still an airforce cadet, before his 1950s meteoric rise to stardom and the move from Memphis to a fancy California estate where she was relegated to the shadows. Vivian, from a strict Catholic Sicilian-American family, largely suffered in silence even as Cash fell into drug abuse and abandoned the family to the temptations of the road. Worse, her dark features led to ugly rumours and targeting by the KKK. There were also false negative portrayals in Hollywood films like “Walk the Line”.  Through intimate recollections by her daughters and a treasure trove of archival materials a fresh affectionate pictures emerges of this remarkable woman who was written out of the Johnny Cash-June Carter mythology.  Vivian also remarried.  Late in life she had an affecting reconciliation with an ailing Johnny.   This fascinating portrait, which was to have premiered at the South By Southwest Festival, restores her to a rightful place in the story.
The Politician (U.S. 2020, Season 2, 7 episodes, Netflix from June 19)  B
Season 2 moves beyond the high-school setting as the ever-ambitious “politician” Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) and his campy team of enablers try to wrest a New York state senate seat from longtime incumbent Dede Standish (Judith Light).  A running gag is that Dede is in a “throuple” with two male partners (one of whom is African American), which gets disrupted when one of them falls for Dede’s right-hand woman Hadassah (Bette Midler).   Payton’s campaign makes a play for progressive causes, notably the youth activist “climate emergency” vote which draws cheers from former rival “Infinity” (Zoey Deutsch).  Meanwhile Payton’s California mom played by Gwyneth Paltrow becomes involved with a presidential aspirant. Dede is also a contender to be a vice-presidential pick. While Light and Midler ham it up as sexually active older women, the main reason to watch is Platt’s engaging turn as Payton, who sings a couple numbers in the loony last episode.  (Several years ago Platt won a Tony award for best actor in a musical for his stage role in “Dear Evan Hansen”.)
That last episode has Payton improbably elected, then skips ahead two years when he is the father of a young son and receives a veepish offer from Dede,  now the running mate of Payton’s mom in the first elected all-female presidential ticket. Say what? Or perhaps dream on? Because the scenarios are sometimes gross, often ridiculous, and almost always cynical, any connections to current events come off as comically unserious.  The satire is too far-fetched to have real bite, which in the context of this fraught American election year is a missed opportunity.     
For the Love of Rutland (U.S. 2020, HotDocs Online)  A
This is a perceptive cinema verité portrait of the small Vermont city of Rutland (population 15,000) by director Jennifer Maytorena Taylor who spent childhood years there and whose parents still call it home.  Vermont may have socialist Bernie Sanders as a senator but this community suffers from all the downbeat anxieties and afflictions of Trump’s America: deindustrialization, drug addiction, homelessness, poverty.  At the film’s heart is a young mother Stacie and her efforts amid these struggles. (At one point the family faces eviction.) Most of the filming took place in 2016 when Rutland made national news for agreeing to accept 100 Syrian refugees. That provoked some “Rutland First” hostility and phobias even before the welcoming progressive mayor was “de-elected” and Trump shut down refugee resettlement. By not glossing over the anger and fears, with which the town’s religious leaders wrestle, the film’s candid observations highlight how places like Rutland need a hopeful agenda for the future.
The Infiltrators (U.S. 2019, on Kanopy) A
This unusual docudrama, directed by Alex Rivera and his wife Cristina Ibarra, was an award winner at the 2019 Sundance film festival where it premiered.  It focuses on the plight of America’s “Dreamers”—undocumented youth brought to the U.S. as children—and on activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance who infiltrate the Broward Detention Centre in Florida—where inmates can languish for years in prison-like conditions—in order to work on cases and stop deportations by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) .  Some of the scenarios use actors to portray situations of manifest injustice within this system.  The Trump administration has made things worse for the undocumented and asylum-seekers.  However the Dreamers remain resilient. (*And on June 18, 2020 they won an important victory at the U.S. Supreme Court upholding their status against Trump policies.)
7500 (Germany/Austria/U.S. 2019, Amazon Prime Video) A-
First-time director Patrick Vollrath directs this taut thriller which opens with a quote from Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”.  On a flight from Berlin to Paris with 85 passengers three terrorists, armed with shards of glass, attempt to take control of the aircraft by storming the cockpit. (The title is an airline hijack distress code.) When the veteran pilot is taken out, the focus is on his American first officer Tobias Ellis played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. An injured Tobias will have to make an emergency landing if anyone is to survive. The terrorists’ threat to kill hostages has the added twist that one of the flight attendants is the partner of Tobias and mother of his two-year old son. A further lethal turn involves the panic of the distraught youngest accomplice. Heightening the tension is a claustrophobic point-of-view, limited to what can be seen from the cockpit, with life-and-death situations taking place as if in real time. Few people are flying these days.  This film’s white-knuckle effect won’t encourage anyone to return to the skies.
Wasp Network (France/Brazil/Spain/Belgium 2019, Netflix) B+
This true-story drama from renowned French filmmaker Olivier Assayas premiered at the Venice film festival in summer 2019.  The first part shows apparent 1990s defections to the U.S. from Castro’s Cuba.   Rene Gonzales (Edgar Ramirez) steals a plane and flies it to Miami, abandoning a wife Olga (Penélope Cruz) and young daughter in Havana. The handsome Juan Pablo Roque, played by Wagner Moura (Sergio), swims to the Guantanamo base to seek asylum, soon getting married and living in high style.  The only clue that something is amiss is when Rene and Juan are shown together several times speaking Russian. It’s almost an hour in when we flash back to a few years earlier as Cuban state security sends Gerardo Hernandez (Gael Garcia Bernal) to set up a “wasp” spy network inside the U.S.  The purpose is to infiltrate anti-Castro groups and to thwart potential attacks on the homeland.  (The danger was clearly real. A subplot shows a Central American mercenary recruited to place bombs in tourist hotels.) Rene and Juan are revealed to be not “traitors” but spy “heroes”.  Olga is eventually informed and joins her husband in Miami, where they have another daughter, before the scheme collapses and the FBI move in to arrest the network. Rene refuses to cooperate and gets a 12-year prison sentence.     
            In lead roles Cruz and the Venezuelan-born Ramirez (best known for his role as the terrorist mastermind in 2010’s miniseries Carlos) do fine work. The movie, made with cooperation of the Cuban government, runs over two hours. The multiple narrative strands still feel too sketchy, however, and have disappointed even admirers of Assayas.  (The source material is Brazilian Fernando Morais’ 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War: The Story of the Cuban Five.) That said, in light of decades of overt U.S. hostility to the Cuban regime (not to mention the embargo and assassination attempts), it’s easy to understand why Cuba would engage in counter-espionage. The story of those efforts deserves to be better known. 
The Vast of Night (U.S. 2019, Amazon Prime Video)  B+
Director Andrew Patterson’s sci-fi tale has picked up more awards since being an audience favorite at the 2019 Slamdance festival.  (It was also a Toronto festival Midnight Madness selection.) Shot on a micro-budget, the story imagines the little town of Cayuga, New Mexico in the 1950s, playing with old-fashioned tropes of UFO sightings (“there’s something in the sky”) and alien abduction.   While almost everyone is at a high-school basketball game, strange noises and occurrences are investigated by two students—the chain-smoking Everett (Jake Horowitz) who’s a radio station host, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who’s working the nighttime telephone switchboard.  The film uses clever framing devices to a retro “twilight-zone” effect that’s oddly compelling.
Nobody Knows I’m Here (Chile 2020, Netflix) B
The streaming service recently added this small and very strange feature.   The main character, the obese schlubby Memo (American Jorge Garcia, best known for his role on the TV series “Lost” a decade ago), lives with an uncle in a dingy abode on a sheep farm.  As a chubby kid Memo had a golden voice but not the right look.  So his voice was effectively stolen to make another sexier type a star. Memo indulges in solitary fantasy until his vocal secret gets out leading to a televised encounter and performance.  More comment at:
Hesburgh (U.S. 2018, Kanopy, Amazon Prime Video) A
Patrick Creadon directs this deep profile of the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, a priest of the Congregation of the Holy Cross who was president of the University of Notre Dame for 35 years. The charismatic Hesburgh had remarkable influence as a confidant of presidents (from Eisenhower to Obama), popes, and the advice columnist “Anne Landers”.  He helped define the modern role of the Catholic university, and made an especially significant national contribution serving for many years as a member, later chair, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  The film, which includes narration of some of Hesburgh’s writings (he died in 2015) and commentaries by contemporaries, follows the course of his career against the backdrop of America’s turbulent social history.  In recent years, when the Catholic clergy have been the object of bad-news stories about abuse and cover-ups, Hesburgh is a useful reminder of what inspired religious leadership can do in troubled times.     


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