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August Civic Holiday Viewing Update


I’ve finally been back to my favorite independent Ottawa theatres, the ByTowne and the Mayfair, with precautions and limitations (mask-wearing, distancing and a 50-person audience maximum). But let me start with streaming suggestions from Netflix which already has over 36,000 hours of content to which it is constantly adding.
Dark (Germany, three seasons 2017-2020, 26 episodes, Netflix) A-
I only discovered this title recently but it appears to have been Netflix’s first original German series, concluding with the final season released in June. Although extremely strange as well as dark, the production is of high quality. The setting is the small German town of Winden in the shadow of the twin towers of a nuclear power plant.  Linked to that facility is a spooky cave with subterranean passages storing barrels of radioactive waste and, more importantly, a time-travel portal on which is inscribed the Latin phrase “ Sic mundus creatus est” (“Thus the world was created”) Scenarios affecting multi-generational local families are more fantastical than Grimm’s fairy tales and involve, inter alia: suicide, sex, missing and murdered children, time machines and time travelers, 33-year lunar-solar cycles, wormholes, “a glitch in the matrix”, a creepy priest named Noah and an “Adam”, key recurring characters (like “Jonas”) in multiple guises, the God particle, pre-and post-apocalyptic visions. The atmosphere is mysterious and menacing.  Frequent drenching rains add to the dystopian gloom. Characters sometimes encounter versions of themselves from other times and ages.   That’s just through the first season.  The next two get even wilder, weirder, wackier as well as violent, with not only many altered times and states but also alternate/parallel worlds.  “What we know is a drop; what we don’t is an ocean”.  Indeed.  It’s nuttier than a fruitcake, often defying description much less explanation, but becomes compulsively watchable.  Like explorers with a light in a dark cave, we keep wondering what on earth is next.
The Business of Drugs (U.S. 2020, Netflix documentary series, 6 episodes) A
Netflix continues to invest in excellent docuseries.  This one is hosted and narrated by Amaryllis Fox, a former CIA analyst and bestselling author.  (More on her background at: https://screenrant.com/netflix-business-drugs-host-amaryllis-fox-cia-who/.)  The six episodes delve deeply into the main sectors of the enormous illicit drug trade: cocaine, psychedelic synthetics (e.g. “ecstasy”), heroin, “meth” (methamphetamine), cannabis, and opioids (e.g. “OxyContin”).  Fox goes to the source, often interviewing heavily disguised participants.  She also takes a global approach, for example, revealing the role of east Africa in the case of heroin networks and southeast Asia in the production of meth.  What becomes increasingly apparent are the terrible consequences of the vast trade—fueling armed conflicts, leading to corruption and money laundering, mass incarceration, soaring overdose deaths—and the catastrophic failure of “war on drugs” legal prohibitions.  It is black markets from which criminal networks profit most.  (Worth noting is that in early July the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police called for the decriminalization of drugs for personal use: https://www.cacp.ca/news/canadas-police-leaders-recommend-adopting-a-public-health-led-diversionary-approach-to-illicit-subst.html.)  
Father Soldier Son (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  B+
This New York times production directed by Leslye and Catrin Einhorn starts with former president Barack Obama’s 2010 decision to send thousands more U. S. troops to Afghanistan. One of them is Brian Eisch, a proud third-generation soldier and 17-year veteran who is also a single dad to young sons Isaac and Joey.  Eisch sustains a serious injury that will result in losing part of a leg. Back home in New York state he is helped by a new partner Maria whose son Jordan comes to live with them. Recovery means overcoming big challenges and limitations. The filmmakers follow the family over the ensuing years. Its trials include a terrible tragedy in 2015 and Brian’s struggle with depression, but there is also joy when Maria gives birth.  The approach taken is empathetic and non-judgmental. Yet, from father to sons, we also see a side of aggressive masculinity and uncritical militarism.  As much as we sympathize with this family, the generational toll of America’s wars is mostly left unexamined.
The Hater (Poland 2020, Netflix) A-
Director Jan Komasa’s previous film was the Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi which was among my best of 2019.  In it a young man on parole from juvenile detention impersonates a parish priest in a grieving community. This new feature, a Tribeca festival award-winner, is almost as impressive and is even more attuned to the maladies of contemporary Polish society in which right-wing populism has flourished.  (The illiberal “Law and Justice” party was recently returned to power in national elections.  More generally, the Polish-American author Anne Applebaum analyses this concerning trend in a new book Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.)
            The central character of The Hater is also a devious young man, Tomasz Giemza (Maciej Musialowski) who gets kicked out of law school for plagiarism. Hiding that from the liberal cultured Warsaw family that has supported his studies—in one scene the father worries about the dark clouds over Europe of “tribalism, nationalism, and authoritarianism”—Tomasz goes to work as an internet troll for “Best Buzz PR” in the amoral business of creating fake accounts and fake news to take down targets.  The relationship with the family—in which Tomasz has a crush on the daughter Gabi—follows the narrative into darker political waters.  The family supports Pawel Rudnicki as a progressive candidate for mayor. Claiming to be against “populism and evil”, Tomasz becomes a volunteer on his campaign, the better to undermine it from the inside through xenophobic, Islamophobic, and homophobic smears. Worse, in this climate of Trumpian disinformation and incitement, Tomasz weaponizes online media through Facebook and videogame avatars, resulting in a horrific act of political terrorism that takes place to the paradoxical strains of the European anthem “Ode to Joy”.  When Tomasz as the covert shameless and sociopathic instigator gets praised as a “hero” of that situation, the savage irony bites even harder.  [An alienated young man’s online violence is also the subject of Komasa’s 2011 feature Suicide Room, free to watch on Kanopy.]      
The Booksellers (U.S. 2019, https://booksellersdocumentary.com/) A-
As somewhat of a bibliophile with a growing accumulation, this wonderful film connected with my appreciation of physical books as valued objects for the mind—which the flood of online content to be read on screens has not diminished.  Director D.W. Young focuses on the New York City book scene, notably in rare, antiquarian and vintage first editions which can command high prices at auctions. Book collectors keep that business going. There are renowned locations like the Argosy Book Store run by three daughters of its founder Louis Cohen who have the advantage of owning the six-story building which houses it.  The metropolis once boasted a “book row” and a total of 368 bookshops. Of these only a relative handful of independents remain. Still the culture of the book remains vital.  Among its defenders is the inimitable Fran Lebowitz who offers some typically tart observations and gets the post-credits last word. 
First Cow (U.S. 2019) A-
Director Kelly Reichardt is among America’s most acclaimed independent filmmakers which is not an easy path.  (On her struggles to finance productions see: https://theplaylist.net/kelly-reichardt-america-next-top-model-20200726/.)  She is also the editor and co-writer of this story based on longtime collaborator Jon Raymond’s novel The Half-Life.  The film begins in the present day as a woman (Alia Shawcat) with a dog discovers a pair of entwined skeletons. Then the narrative, presented in a retro squarish frame, harks back to the Pacific Northwest Oregon territory of the 1820s as “Cookie” (John Magaro), the cook for a group of grubby trappers, forsakes them to team up with another wanderer and fortune-seeker, a Chinese man named King-Lu (Orion Lee) who claims to be fleeing from Russians. The two meet at a trading post and share a shack in the bush. Their luck changes when a brown cow arrives by river raft, owned by the British “chief factor” (Toby Jones).  With King-Lu as a lookout in a tree, Cookie takes to surreptitiously milking the “first cow” by night to obtain a key fresh ingredient for making the “oily cakes” that sell like hotcakes to the locals, including the impressed factor who remains clueless about the milk source even after he has Cookie whip up a delicious blueberry clafouti for a special guest.   The Indigenous Peoples of the region are little more than bystanders to this commerce. (Canadian Gary Farmer has a cameo appearance as a local chief.) When the milking scheme is discovered, Cookie and King-Lu abscond into the wilderness to an unfortunate fate.  Small scale and slow moving, Reichardt wondrously recreates the frontier ambience of their unlikely friendship that flourishes over a clandestine cow caper until it comes to a melancholy conclusion.   
Because We Are Girls (Canada 2019, https://mediaspace.nfb.ca/epk/because-we-are-girls/
Baljit Sangra helms this excellent documentary about the legacy of the sexual abuse suffered by three daughters of a conservative Indo-Canadian family—Jeeti, Kira, and Salakshana Pooni—growing up in the small interior B.C. community of Williams Lake.  The abuser was an older cousin who came from India to live with the family.  In an atmosphere of racial and gender prejudice the girls did not feel valued, by society or their parents.  Decades later the sisters break the silence and pursue a court case against their abuser.  (The legal proceedings resulted in the film’s release being pushed back from an original 2018 Vancouver film festival premiere.) This is a story of justice delayed but ultimately brought to light through the power of sisterhood.
Brotherhood (Canada 2019, https://www.brotherhood1926.com/)  B-
This “true story” from writer-director Richard Bell takes place in the summer of 1926 at a camp for some dozen fatherless boys at Balsam lake in Ontario’s cottage country.  Several of the adult camp leaders are World War I veterans.  There are references to wartime sacrifices as well as to deaths from the 1918 “Spanish flu” epidemic.  After setting up the camp atmosphere, the film keeps flashing back and forth to the disaster that befalls the group—an unseen storm which leaves them desperately clinging to their capsized long “war canoe” after night falls.  The murky gloom of these sequences is so deep it can be hard to make out individual actions. By daylight only four survivors make it to a shore, three boys and the councilor (Brendan Fletcher) who has lost family to the epidemic.  The ingredients are there for a compelling story but the dramatic potential remains underdeveloped.    








         




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