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Late August Viewing Options Update



I am happy to report that some theatres have reopened, including my Ottawa favorites the ByTowne (https://www.bytowne.ca/) and the Mayfair (https://mayfairtheatre.ca/).   Seen in theatres and reviewed below are: Joan of Arc, Nomad, Summerland, John Lewis: Good Trouble, The Great Green Wall, Arab Blues, and La bonne épouse (check listings).
At the same time huge amounts of streaming content are being added.  My friend Audrey Rosa alerted me to the three seasons on Netflix of “Animal Kingdom” inspired by the terrific 2010 Australian feature of the same name (available on Amazon Prime Video).  Also on Netflix is another crime family series “Ozark”, the third season of which has earned scads more Emmy nominations. As for real-crime stories, a new Netflix docuseries World’s Most Wanted has five episodes on: a Mexican drug lord, a financer of the Rwandan genocide, a British female terrorist mastermind, a Russian mafia boss, and Italy’s last Cosa Nostra godfather.   
The reviews below start with two other new Netflix docuseries:
Connected: The Hidden Science of Everything (UK/U.S. Netflix docuseries, 6 episodes) A-
This series is hosted and narrated by Latif Nasser, a science historian and New York public radio broadcaster, who is also an executive producer.  The tall gawky Nasser, sporting a mop of black curls, brings a goofy gee-whiz presence to the proceedings that some may find off-putting. I wasn’t as bothered by his infectious curiosity about the weird and wonderful world around us. The series throws in some clever fun animation to its roving explorations and observations that include a fascinating array of amazing and often surprising facts.  I think teens as well as adults will find it an entertaining learning experience.  The first episode on “surveillance” moves from pattern recognition in nature to the science behind facial recognition software and artificial intelligence algorithms, the applications of which can be manipulated by for-profit enterprises or authoritarian states.  It’s a timely reminder of how advances in human knowledge can be abused.
The second episode on “poop” goes from the history of what the excretions of living beings tell us to a discussion of bacterial phages and viruses. The third episode on “dust” observes how dust from the Sahara desert that crosses the Atlantic (150 million tons annually) helps to fertilize the Amazon rain forest. A fourth episode on “digits” explains the marvels of “Benford’s law” which was new to me. The fifth episode on “clouds” ranges from the atmospheric and the undersea environments to cyberspace.  The last episode on “nukes” delves into nuclear fission, the formation of the moon, and the effects of the radioactive fallout from above-ground nuclear tests, which include using carbon-14 dating to detect art fraud and determine the age of human cells.  [*This month marked the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today’s growing arsenal of advanced nuclear weapons are vastly more powerful. The Hiroshima explosion resulted from only 7/tenths of one gram of uranium being converted to energy.] 
Immigration Nation (U.S., Netflix docuseries, 6 episodes) A
After watching the six hour-long episodes I felt even more thankful that Canada has avoided what is depicted here in our polarized neighbour to the south.  I am impressed that the filmmakers had up-close access to the operations of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) service which is part of the vast Department of Homeland Security empire. It’s akin to the expanded prison industrial complex and has ramped up under the “zero tolerance” policies of the Trump administration.  ICE operatives (with last names blacked out) speak candidly and defend their role but the overall picture is deeply disturbing. One never gets used to the sight of people in chains or languishing in detention for years. Already in the first episode “Installing Fear” we see heavily armed ICE agents hunting down “fugitive aliens”, the trauma that results from the destruction of families, the separation of children from parents, and the like. It’s a nightmare scenario that has progressive movements calling for the abolition of ICE.  The second episode “Maintaining Vigilance” looks at the reality for the many millions of the undocumented. Episode three “Power of the Vote” delves into the political battles between nativists and defenders of those targeted.  A surprising observation is that over a half million deportees are military veterans. Episode four “The New Normal” notes that there are over 50,000 in ICE custody on any given day; and like privately-run prisons most are in for-profit facilities. Another business reality is the commonplace wage theft of undocumented workers (who pay $24 billion in taxes annually). Episode five “The Right Way” makes the important point that seeking asylum in NOT “illegal”. But the Trump administration wants to end family reunification, shut the door to refugees, and criminalize even those who follow the rules. (The exception of a Ugandan family is a very rare good news story following years of persistent efforts.)  The final episode “Prevention through Deterrence” looks at the militarization of the southern border. While literally thousands have died trying to cross desert sections, this has not stopped the exploitation of migrants by human-smuggling networks linked to criminal cartels. Like the “war on drugs”, this is a war that keeps creating more casualties rather than solutions. More comment at: https://readysteadycut.com/2020/08/02/review-immigration-nation-season-1-netflix-series/
Run This Town (Canada 2019, Crave)  B-
Writer-director Ricky Tollman’s loose dramatization of the chaotic swirl of scandal surrounding the late Mayor Rob Ford earns a rave from the Los Angeles Times but a raspberry from the Globe and Mail, which is telling given that the “town” in question is Toronto. Ford and his populist antics were notoriously divisive even before the infamous video surfaced of him smoking crack cocaine. Ford (a grossly fat-enhanced Damian Lewis) actually makes few appearances in this recounting.  The focus is more on the young staffers in his office and young reporters out to get the story.   We feel their millennial angst and precarious employment circumstances.  Completely ignored is the actual reporter who did the key digging—the Globe’s Robyn Doolittle who wrote Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story.  Instead we get a fictional male character “Bram” (Ben Platt) as a new hire trying to impress bosses at a fictional newspaper ‘The Record”.  Platt (star of Netflix’s “The Politician” and a talented singer-songwriter) does a decent job in a made-up role.  But the movie’s mixed-up version of events misses the mark.
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (U.S. 2019)  A
The inspiration for this tribute is the inimitable Werner Herzog, a master filmmaker of both dramatic narratives and documentaries which he always narrates in a unique voice. I’ve also been to Punta Arenas in Patagonia where this journey begins.  Herzog, a great walker and global traveler, finds a kindred spirit in Chatwin, the legendary adventurer and travel writer who died of AIDS in 1989.  That includes a fascination with the prehistoric, aboriginal cultures, and nomadic peoples. Herzog met Chatwin in Australia while he was filming Where the Green Ants Dream and Chatwin was working on The Songlines.  Herzog adapted Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Ouidah into the wildly grotesque 1987 feature Cobra Verde, an early nineteenth century tale of the Brazil-West Africa slave trade (watch on Amazon Prime Video or free on TubiTV). There are also brief sequences from several other Herzog docs: Signs of Life (1968) and Scream of Stone (1991). Divided into eight chapters, Herzog’s appreciation of Chatwin’s legacy includes his rucksack that continues to accompany the former’s peripatetic explorations.  More comment at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/nomad-werner-herzog-review
An American Pickle (U.S. 2020, Crave/HBO Max)  C
We get a double helping of Canadian Seth Rogen in director Brandon Trost’s wacky version of a short story by Simon Rich.  Rogen 1.0 is Herschel Greenbaum, a heavily-bearded Jewish ditch digger in the fictional East European country of Schlupsk. After escaping Cossacks in 1919, Greenbaum emigrates to New York City where he finds work in a pickle factory.  Falling into a vat of brine, he’s preserved for a century and emerges in the present day to encounter Rogen 2.0, a great grandson Ben Greenbaum who is a mobile app developer.  Herschel’s pickle-making skills are a hit until his antiquated politically incorrect views spark toxic controversy and backlash. Ben then tries to sneak Herschel into Canada but Herschel does a switcheroo that lands Ben in a pickle and a deportation to Schlupsk. Unfortunately the scenarios are so ludicrous that any satirical potential gets lost.  
Joan of Arc (France 2019)  C+
This latest version of the story of France’s 15th century martyred patron saint from idiosyncratic filmmaker Bruno Dumont follows up his 2017 feature Jeanette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc (which used heavy-metal rock music as accompaniment), and is supposedly inspired by Charles Péguy’s play The Mystery of the Charity of Joan of Arc.  Reprising the role of the teenage girl warrior is Lise Leplat Prudhomme who appears in battle dress, on a holy mission to drive out the English and their Burgundian allies.  There are several set pieces in historical costume, beginning in the field which includes an overhead choreography of cavalry.  However there are no battle scenes, nor is the capture of Joan shown. We move straight to Joan’s trial for heresy in Rouen (actually inside the vast interior of the cathedral of Amiens). The unrepentant Joan shouts her responses to the conclave of arch churchmen.   Dumont throws in several musical moments, including a song by a hooded Christophe (who died of Covid-19 in April!). This is one long strange movie. The Hollywood Reporter’s review by Jordan Mintzer describes watching it as “akin to being burnt at the stake”.   Maybe not that painful but the experience is more suggestive of parody than stirring history.
Summerland (UK 2020)  B+
Writer-director Jessica Swale bookends this drama with an older woman (Penelope Wilton) struggling to compose a memoir.  We are swept back to the English seaside near Dover during the Second World War as a younger Alice Lamb (Gemma Aterton) pursues her passions as a writer interested in pagan mythology. The solitary Alice has a witchy reputation in the village and resists taking in an evacuee from the London Blitz, a curly-haired boy Frank (Lucas Bond).  She accepts for just one week until another family can be found.  In Alice’s past is a doomed lesbian romance with Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Yet an affection grows for the boy, especially after tragic news arrives on the eve of his birthday. Then, like the “summerland” sky of heavenly mirage, there’s an even bigger surprise in store. It may seem an improbable fable but the locations are evocative and there are fine performances including by Tom Courtenay as an aging schoolmaster and Dixie Egerickx as a spunky schoolmate Edie.
An Easy Girl (“Une Fille Facile”, France 2019, Netflix)  B
Director Rebecca Slotowski’s latest drama premiered at the 2019 Cannes film festival and is also set on its seaside playground for the rich and famous.  The teenage Naima (Mina Farid) is on holiday there while her mother works in a luxury hotel.  Then Naima’s uninhibited 22-year old cousin Sofia (former model Zahia Dehar) arrives from Paris and draws Naima into her slipstream of extravagant consumption and sensation. The slutty Sofia, tanned and sometimes topless, uses her allure to draw attention. They get invited on the fancy yacht, named “Winning Streak”, of a wealthy Brazilian collector Andres (Nuno Lopez) and his companion Philippe (Benoit Magimel).  Sofia takes full advantage and seems not to care when it doesn’t last.  The picture is one of a pre-pandemic summer idyll in a world of easy, ephemeral and meaningless pleasures. The last scene at least suggests Naima hasn’t been spoiled by the summer’s fleeting empty promise.
Arab Blues (“Un divan à Tunis”, France/Tunisia 2019, in theatres and on Kanopy) B+
Director and co-writer Manele Labidi explores the sometimes comic situations that arise after psychoanalyst Selma (Iranian-born Golshifteh Farahani) returns to her native Tunisia after spending years in Paris and opens a psychotherapy practice.  Selma sets up shop, in a family-owned apartment building, even before obtaining an official license to practice, which brings her to the attention of a policeman Naim (Majd Mastoura) who alternately harasses and hits on her. Selma’s dealings with the health ministry expose a satiric comedy of minor bureaucratic venality and delay. Selma comes across as a modern young woman thrust back into the dysfunctions of an unhappy family and variously unhappy patients looking for a sympathetic ear.  That would give anyone the “blues”.  Labidi coaxes gentle humour from the situations. Just don’t expect anything more.  
How to be a Good Wife (“La bonne épouse”, France 2020) B-
This French farce set in Alsace circa 1967 stars Juliette Binoche as Paulette van der Beck, the matronly headmistress of a “good housekeeping” finishing school for girls with a thoroughly antiquated approach to the subject.  Assisting her are a battle-axe nun in traditional black habit Sister Marie-Thérèse (Noémie Lvovsky), and the silly-goose sister Gilberte (Yolande Moreau) of Paulette’s hapless white-haired husband Robert (Francis Berléand).  The school is already a sinking anachronism when his fateful choking on a rabbit bone hastens a financial reckoning. Paulette takes up with banker André (Edouard Baer) even as the whole absurdist premise falls apart.  Then, as we move into 1968 with news from Paris of the spirit of youthful revolutionary fervor in the air, Paulette seems to have a revelation of female emancipation and leads the school forward in a campy musical march toward the future.  The sudden total tonal shift doesn’t make much sense, but then neither does the school itself.  Writer-director Martin Provost squeezes what laughs he can from a scenario that plays more like mockumentary than satire.
The Quarry (U.S. 2020, Crave)  C+
Director Scott Teems’ low-rent drama, adapting a 1995 novel by Damon Galgut, follows a nameless drifter on the lam (Shea Whigham) who kills an alcoholic preacher David Martin (Bruno Bichir), buries him in a quarry, then steals his identity and van, arriving in a dead-end west Texas town where he pretends to be a man of the scriptures. He finds lodging with Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who’s having an affair with the local police chief played by Michael Shannon.  To no avail, she warns the man the van will be robbed by her Mexican-American cousins, two brothers.  The plot thickens when the younger one finds the body and the jailed older one is accused of the crime in addition to robbery and drug dealing.  In the church the imposter speaks no Spanish and the congregation appears to understand no English.  It’s a very odd affair; the only question being when and how the ruse will collapse with what consequences.  
Project Power (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  C+
Yet another new film churned out by the Netflix dream factory, this sic-fi fantasy directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, conjures up a near-future New Orleans in which the latest sensation is a “power” pill that provides exactly five minutes of super powers. Just imagine the potential abuses and bad trips.  (Also, parts of the city still seem a post-Katrina hellscape. And as if America didn’t already have enough troubles with drug epidemics and pandemics.) The principals are: an ex-military guy Art, aka “the Major” (Jamie Foxx), whose issues include rescuing an adducted daughter; a teenage dealer and wannabe rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback) with tons of attitude (though earning money for a good family cause); and a cool-dude cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who pops a pill for bulletproof chase and arrest purposes. Of course the super pill is of interest to nefarious pan-American conspiracies, adding wild scenes on a multi-level ship to the violent action and mayhem. Fans of that genre may appreciate; otherwise ‘just say no”.
Desert One (U.S. 2019, https://www.desertonemovie.com/, on demand from Sept. 4) A-
From master documentarian Barbara Kopple is the inside story of the doomed April 1980 special forces U.S. mission to rescue 52 American hostages being held in Teheran following the 1979 Islamic revolution.  Kopple interviews former president Jimmy Carter (and his vice-president Walter Mondale) as well as those involved directly in the failed mission. She also used an all-female Iranian crew who offer an Iranian perspective of the time and place.  Recall that the overthrown Shah had fled to America (where he died in July 1980) and the revolutionary regime had insisted that he be returned for trial.  As the months passed the pressure increased on Carter to act, but he was determined to avoid harm to the hostages. The mission was aborted when helicopters crashed at the “desert one” site, leaving behind eight burned American bodies. This was the low point of the Carter presidency and no doubt contributed to his November defeat by Ronald Reagan.  Although it was the outgoing Carter administration that struck the deal that resulted in the return of the hostages after 444 days of captivity, it was the just-inaugurated President Reagan who basked in the credit. Kopple’s retelling of this episode reveals new details. [The film does not mention Canada’s role in secretly sheltering and getting out six American diplomats who evaded capture (the so-called “Canadian caper”) but it also avoids the controversy over the Hollywood version of those events in the 2012 feature Argo.]      
John Lewis: Good Trouble (U.S. 2020, https://www.johnlewisgoodtrouble.com/)  A-
Director Dawn Porter’s inspiring profile of the legendary civil rights leader, completed before he died July 17 at age 80, seems especially timely in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the protests against the persistence of systemic racism.  As Lewis states in an opening interview, there are still “miles to go” to achieve real equality.   He spent a career advocating for voting rights and working against the ongoing attempts at voter suppression. Lewis, who was arrested 45 times, and served in Congress for 33 years, was a lifelong believer in the power of nonviolent activism—the kind of trouble he called “good” and “necessary”—to bring about social change. The film blends archival footage (notably from the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march where he was savagely beaten) with personal anecdotes from Lewis’s rural Alabama childhood (when he would preach to the chickens) to his influence on generations of legislators. That was not always without controversy, as in 1986 when Lewis defeated longtime friend and civil rights ally Julian Bond for a seat in the House of Representatives. While the film could perhaps dig deeper into such tensions and the contrast with advocates of ‘Black power”, its tribute to Lewis’s legacy is well deserved.  (Available on Kanopy is the 1970 documentary King: A Filmed Record … Montgomery to Memphis.)
The Great Green Wall (UK 2019, https://www.greatgreenwall.org/film)  A-
Director Jared Scott’s documentary opens with an aphorism by revolutionary African leader Thomas Sankara: “We must dare to invent the future.”  The titular subject is the ambitious pan-African project to arrest desertification in the arid Sahel region south of the Sahara by creating a treed green belt of 8,000 kms across the continent.  The narrator is Malian singer Inna Modja who undertakes a musical activist journey from west to east.  The region, already the source of desperate migrants towards Europe, is on the frontlines of climate change. With only 15% of the project underway in places much of it remains aspirational.  Modja does not minimize the many challenges which include extremist movements and violent conflicts.  She also visits examples of restoration and resilience through community efforts.  Infusing the subject with a musical energy gives the film a dynamism that goes beyond description, striking hopeful notes that will certainly be needed for a growing youthful population to have a better future. (More comment at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/great-green-wall-documentary-review. )   
Unfit: The Psychology of Donald Trump (U.S. 2020, streaming from September 1) B+
Given the title, it’s no surprise that director Dan Partland’s documentary offers evidence that the current U.S. president, a compulsive liar and cheater, is a dangerously amoral holder of the office, one who certainly can’t be trusted with nuclear weapons. A group of psychologists and psychiatrists under the “Duty to Warn” banner see Trump as a “malignant narcissist” (combining elements of narcissism with anti-social psychopathy and sadism). Also interviewed are never-Trump conservatives like William Kristol and anti-Trump Republicans like those of the “Lincoln Project”.  Trumpism is portrayed as an authoritarian if not proto-fascist threat to democracy.  At the same time, it’s clear that Trump is tapping into a deep malaise in the American body politic, hence his ability to retain a fanatically loyal following (about 40% of the electorate, 80+% of Republicans).  We hear familiar Trump boasts, such that he could shoot someone and not lose any votes.  The film tacks on references to the current pandemic and recent protest movements. But it doesn’t really go beyond the surface of events.  How does someone manifestly “unfit” take over a major political party? Why is it that Trump’s enduring appeal is so little affected by a series of anti-Trump books? Add films like this one.  One of those interviewed laments that “rationality will lose every time”.  Let’s hope that’s not a prediction for November!  



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