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Early Fall Viewing Options

 

Included in this post is a review of Nomadland, my top choice from the recent Toronto film festival which was mostly online.  More on that festival at these links:

https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/09/2020-toronto-film-festival-highlights

https://variety.com/2020/film/awards/awards-circuit-nomadland-oscars-1234772307/

First broadcast September 14 on the PBS as part of its 33rd “POV” season is the 2019 TIFF selection Love Child, an excellent documentary about a family of Iranian asylum seekers who find themselves stuck in bureaucratic limbo in Turkey. [*More comment at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/tiff-review-love-child.  And for a discussion guide see: https://www.pbs.org/pov/engage/resources/love-child-discussion-guide/film-summary/.]

At an actual theatre I was able to see a special documentary A Night at the Louvre: Leonardo Da Vinci which is a cinematic guide to the museum’s decade-in-the-making special 500th year anniversary exhibition of the work of the Renaissance Italian genius. (See:

https://www.anightatthelouvre.film/.)

            If you enjoyed Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar best picture winner Parasite, check out an earlier darkly humorous feature Barking Dogs Never Bite from the year 2000 (free to watch on Tubi TV with a few short ads).  And on the free public library-linked Kanopy platform I highly recommend the intensely naturalistic 2016 drama Being 17 from French master André Téchiné, with a screenplay co-written by Céline Sciamma, whose Portrait of a Lady on Fire was among the best of 2019.   

             In mid-September Terrence Malick’s latest feature A Hidden Life also began streaming on the “Crave” TV service which is usually bundled with HBO.  (Listen to a CBC rave review at: https://www.cbc.ca/listen/live-radio/1-92-all-in-a-day/clip/15799842-weekly-film-column-a-hidden-life.) My first recommendation below is of a timely new HBO documentary. Another revealing multi-episode HBO documentary is The Vow. Also worth checking out is a new HBO series We Are Who We Are, a racially and sexually charged drama about teenagers growing up on an American military base in Italy, helmed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name).

Finally, let me also mention an “Impact” series of screenings and speakers that began September 26 at several dozen cinema locations across Canada.  The lead-off film about youth climate justice activism is titled Now and will have another screening on October 1. More information at: https://theimpactseries.net/.  

Agents of Chaos (U.S. 2020, HBO, first broadcast September 23-24) A

(More comment at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/agents-of-chaos-movie-review-2020.)

This excellent two-part, four-hour investigative series, from veteran documentarian Alex Gibney and his Jigsaw production house, is a deep dive into the cyber operations of Russian intelligence services which used internet troll “farms” to weaponize social media, targeting Ukraine, and then the United States, most controversially during the 2016 presidential election campaign.  There’s no question that these operations aimed to exploit and inflame already existing divisions within the American body politic; though what’s harder to discern is any actual effect on voting intentions.  There’s also no question that the Putin regime badly wanted Hillary Clinton to lose, and Donald Trump, an unabashed admirer, to win. As well, some Trump cronies (most notoriously one-time campaign manager Paul Manafort) had close ties to powerful people in Russia and Ukraine.  That said, some of the alleged ties (e.g. of advisor Carter Page) may not have been significant or consequential.  The makers of the documentary have done their homework, interviewing a number of Russians on background.  On the American side, a key source is Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director fired by Trump in March 2018 just hours before his scheduled retirement.  (Not interviewed is former FBI director James Comey, or Robert Mueller for that matter.) Of course the U.S. has its own long history, notably through the CIA, of meddling in other country’s affairs and even overthrowing democratically-elected governments.  Acknowledging that, and the manifest weaknesses of America’s own democracy, doesn’t erase or excuse the potential harm from Russian disinformation.  For an incisive and balanced perspective see the careful analysis by Joshua Yafta, the Moscow correspondent for The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/14/is-russian-meddling-as-dangerous-as-we-think?utm_source=onsite-share&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=onsite-share&utm_brand=the-new-yorker.

[*According to former FBI senior executive Peter Strzok, Russian election interference continues in 2020. He is interviewed on his book Compromised: Counterintelligence and the Threat of Donald J. Trump: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-sept-29-2020-1.5742880/trump-debts-make-u-s-vulnerable-to-russian-influence-ahead-of-election-says-former-fbi-deputy-1.5743289]

The Comey Rule (U.S. 2020, on Crave) B+

 This Showtime four-hour TV series was first broadcast on September 28, the day after the New York Times published a bombshell investigation into Donald Trump’s years of serial tax avoidance and dubious finances. Directed by Billy Ray, it draws heavily on former FBI director James Comey’s somewhat self-serving memoir A Higher Loyalty. Although described from the outset as a “showboater”, Comey (played by Jeff Daniels) is depicted as always trying to do the right thing.  Comey’s decision to reopen an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails just days before the 2016 election probably helped to elect Trump (a creepy caricature by Brendan Gleeson).  But Comey was later famously fired for investigating the Russia connection and failing to swear total “loyalty” to Trump. For several reviews see:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/23/the-comey-rule-tv-drama-devastating-portrayal-of-trump

https://variety.com/2020/tv/reviews/the-comey-rule-showtime-1234754580/

[*Let me also mention a somewhat overwrought UK documentary People You May Know released the same day on Sundance Now.  It looks at the right-wing weaponization of social media platforms like Facebook and metadata drawing on a UK parliamentary committee’s investigation of Cambridge Analytica. In the U.S., the focus is on the Christian right and ultra-conservative forces including the shadowy pro-Trump Council for National Policy. The chief source is a book Shadow Network: Media, Money and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right by Anne Nelson, a Columbia University scholar.]  

Nomadland  (U.S. 2020)  A+

This is the main TIFF selection I was really focused on and watched the same day it was awarded the “golden lion” top prize of the Venice Film Festival.  (*I did so on the strength of having seen director Chloe Zhao’s outstanding previous feature The Rider at the South By Southwest festival several years ago.) At TIFF, the year’s best reviewed drama to date (a 99% rating on rottentomatoes.com) also won both a directing prize for Zhao and the “People’s Choice” award, which is the past has been an early predictor of Oscar success. (Do watch the Sept. 12 TIFF q&a with Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc8X-6HI9d4.)

            Inspired by Jessica Bruder’s book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Zhao’s film plays as an elegy for an abandoned working-class America that has borne the brunt of economic disruption and recession. Living on the margins, these are the forgotten people who Trump claims to represent but manifestly (with his tax cuts for the wealthy) does not. The protagonist is Fern (Frances McDormand, never better), a 60-something widow who is out of work, and house, in 2011 when her factory in Empire, Nevada closes. The place is left so bereft even the postal code disappears. No moper, Fern pulls up stakes and takes to living in her van, becoming part of a displaced human flow scattered among itinerant encampments.  She gets temporary odd jobs, several at huge Amazon distribution warehouses. (*The Covid-19 pandemic has been a boon for online shopping businesses, if not employees.  Indeed Amazon boss Jeff Bezos has increased his personal fortune by over US$50 billion this year.)  Another job is at the National Grasslands Visitor Centre in the South Dakota badlands.

            It’s a precarious existence and economy.  Yet this raw and poignant portrait of an ailing and alienated American underclass also includes moments of sublime human connection.  Fern strikes up a friendship with an older man “Dave” (David Strathairn). However most scenes involve a shifting population of non-actors, drifters among whom Zhao (screenwriter and editor as well as director) spent months.  Fern goes to a sister’s place but doesn’t stay. Later she takes up an invitation to visit Dave at the home of his son’s family which has welcomed a baby grandson.  But again Fern doesn’t stay, leaving without notice. Her reality has become transient, set against the spare, open landscapes of the midwest, for which the Beijing-born Zhao has a remarkable sensibility. Zhao’s talent for transforming naturalistic documentary-like realism into cinematic poetry was already apparent in her first feature—2015’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me (watch on Kanopy), shot on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Nomadland is another masterwork: “Dedicated to the ones who had to depart. See you down the road.” I can’t wait for follow Fern’s passages again on the big screen. As one review concludes, it’s “a spiritual journey that every lover of cinema should experience at least once”. [*A theatrical release is scheduled for this December. More commentary at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/tiff-2020-nomadland-review.]

Blood Quantum (Canada 2019, Crave)  B-

Both raves and raspberries greeted this unusual homegrown horror flick that topped the “Midnight Madness” program of the 2019 TIFF.  Writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s zombie fantasy, with dialogue in Mi’gmaq as well as English, imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which only those with Indigenous blood are not infected.  In a clever turn, the title refers to the percentage of Indigenous blood used to determine status as an instrument of colonial control; now conferring immunity to the deadly plague.  The focus is on the “Red Crow” reservation in Quebec, and specifically its sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, a writer-director in her own right, best known for The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open). son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), and toublemaking brother Alan (Kiowa Gordon) who goes by the nickname “Lysol”.  It’s an interesting enough premise but there’s also plenty of gore as befits this sanguinary genre, so be warned.

Hope Gap (UK 2019) A-

No, this is not about the current global moment when many are struggling to keep hope alive. It’s another 2019 TIFF selection that deserves better than the mostly middling reactions it has received.   It’s from writer-director William Nicholson adapting his own 1989 play “The Retreat from Moscow” and features three strong performances. Edward (Bill Nighy), a history teacher (hence the play’s Napoleonic reference), and Grace (Annette Bening) are in a 29-year marriage that has gone stale.  An unhappy Grace tries in vain to provoke a reaction from him.  The she’s shocked when he confesses he has fallen in love with the mother of one of his pupils and abruptly leaves.  She’s not even the first to know.  Edward has asked their only son Jamie (Josh O’Connor) to return home for a weekend visit and confides this to him while she’s away at Sunday mass. Grace reacts with denial, hurt and anger even as Edward gives her the house and maintains a patient outward calm.  She gets a puppy to command that she calls Edward.  She makes a scene in a solicitor’s office.  A worried Jamie makes frequent return visits and becomes a reluctant go-between.    He lives alone and shares some of Edward’s unforthcoming reticence. (O’Connor’s breakout role was in the transgressive drama God’s Own Country and he plays Prince Charles in the most recent season of the Netflix series “The Crown”.)

The title, which refers to a seaside cove near the white cliffs of Dover, is also a metaphor for the missing parts of a relationship when it’s too late to pick up the pieces.  Grace starts to volunteer with “friendline”, a suicide prevention service, and Jamie offers to help put online her anthology of favorite poems. Although a gap remains, there’s hope for some solace.      

The Artist’s Wife (U.S. 2019, https://theartistswifefilm.com/) B

Bruce Dern plays abstract expressionist painter Richard Smythson, a cranky white-haired curmudgeon, in this rather slight story directed and co-written by Tom Dolby. Richard is past his prime and losing it—literally, as he is in the throes of Alzheimer’s. Younger wife Claire (Lena Olin) is a talented artist is her own right.  During a wintry New York season she manages Richard’s darkening moods and increasingly erratic behavior—including as an acerbic art teacher whose outbursts get him fired.  More than that, Claire protects Richard’s ego and famous legacy by creating new works that she passes off as his in a new gallery exhibition.  There are shades of the 2017 drama The Wife (watch on Amazon Prime Video), although Richard’s addled state perhaps makes the deception and misdirected acclaim more forgivable.    

Petit Pays (France/Belgium 2019, English title “Small Country: An African Childhood”)  A

Writer-director Eric Barbier brings to vivid life the semi-autobiographical 2016 novel by Burundi author Gaël Faye. In Francophone Africa the “small country” is Burundi bordering Rwanda and riven by similar ethnic Tutsi-Hutu hostilities.  The story begins in 1992 in the capital of Bujumbura where gangs of kids roam the streets. Gabriel, “Gaby” (Dijibril Vancoppenolle) is among a group of boys that brazenly steal mangoes to sell to drivers on a busy street. Gaby and little sister Ana (Dayla De Medina) belong to a mixed-race family of four—French father Michel Chappaz (Jean-Paul Rouve) and mother Yvonne (Isabelle Kabano), who is a Tutsi originally from Rwanda and calls herself a “refugee”. Matters soon turn more serious. A June 1993 election that brings a Hutu party to power is followed months later by a deadly coup d’état.  Yvonne takes her children to Rwanda for the wedding of her brother Pacifique who warns of an impending genocide.  When it is unleashed in April 1994 Yvonne tries in vain to get family members out of the country.  We see the horrors of ethnic cleansing and its aftermath through the prism of this family and several servants. Yvonne goes missing and will become a traumatized survivor.  Another consequence in Burundi is of Tutsi mob violence seeking revenge (evident in an especially disturbing scene).  Michel sends the children away to France (where Yvonne would have liked to go) but the innocence of childhood has been taken.  Fast forward to a poignant ending as an adult Gabriel returns to Burundi and the scars of those terrible events.  Barbier’s interpretation offers an immersive experience that benefits from strong performances by all ages.

The Nest (Canada/UK 2020, https://www.ifcfilms.com/films/the-nest) B

Critics are also divided over this unhappy drama that premiered at Sundance.  Writer-director Sean Durkin mostly filmed around Toronto but that’s the only Canadian connection.  Set in the Thatcherite era of the 1980s, Jude Law plays Rory O’Hara who having made his first million in New York takes his family of four—wife Allison (Carrie Coon), daughter Samantha (Oona Roche) and younger son Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell)—back to England, working for a previous employer as a hotshot market trader and dealmaker. He buys a huge pile with estate in Surrey where Allison can continue her equestrian-training pursuits on pricey mount “Richmond”.  However living the dream turns out not to be the charm despite the ambitious Rory’s “ruthless vision”.  (A brief visit to a mum he hasn’t bothered to connect with in many years underlines his shallow self-centred persona.)  Then the horse gets sick and has to be put down.  At the same time Rory’s spendthrift house of cards is catching up with him. In fouling his “nest”, Rory is such a sharkish selfish character, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy.  The couple’s relationship turns toxic.  An estranged Allison lets loose.  Meanwhile Samantha turns to drugs and partying. False pretense falls away, and after all the commotion, we’re left with an emotionally flat ending … the depleted terrain of another unhappy family.    

The Devil All The Time (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  B-

This long (138 minutes) and disturbing tale from director Antonio Campos is based on the eponymous 2011 novel by Donald Ray Pollock from a screenplay co-written with Campos’ brother Paulo. An unseen narrator outlines the thread of happenings in a gothic backwoods setting of West Virginia and Ohio in the years after the Second World War. One of the first of many bloody violent scenes is of a crucified Marine on a battlefield.  Bill Skarsgård plays a returning veteran Willard Russell whose wife dies of cancer.  His son Arvin (played by Tom Holland as an adult) becomes a key surviving character. Jason Clarke and Riley Keough play the Hendersons, a married couple who are kinky serial killers.  Robert Pattinson takes on the role of a creepy preacher Preston Teagarden. This story of murder and mayhem wallows in tawdry ugliness, managing to be both bible-belt barmy and shockingly amoral. There’s more to it as portrayed by good actors.  But as the review in Indiewire warns, the result is “a sweaty, bloated mess of a movie that flushes a knockout ensemble down the drain.”

Enola Holmes (UK 2020, Netflix)  B

Directed by Harry Bradbeer and based on Nancy Springer’s young adult mystery series, Millie Bobby Brown play the titular detective Enola (a palindrome of “alone) as the spunky 16-year old sister of famous sleuth Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and brother Mycroft (Sam Clafin).  Set in the England of the 1880s, the misadventures and detecting begin after mother Eudoria (Helena Bonham-Carter) disappears.  Enola often speaks to the camera as she and a runaway young Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Patridge) are dogged by a murderous pursuer. His whereabouts are related to a key upcoming vote in the House of Lords on a reform bill.

Whose Vote Counts, Explained: The Right to Vote (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  A-

This timely Netflix docuseries consists of three 25-minute episodes narrated respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio, Selena Gomez, and John Legend.  With President Trump ranting frantically and falsely about non-existent voter fraud (including during the September 29 televised debate with Biden), it’s worth a look at the reality of the national U.S. electoral system.  It’s actually run by the states with no automatic or orderly registration process.  The issues covered highlight acts of voter suppression, partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts, the anachronism of the Electoral College, and the abuses of vast sums of money in campaigns.  Beyond explaining these flaws the series seems intended to boost voter turnout by directing viewers to this website: https://www.vox.com/21410226/vote-voting-explained.   

American Murder: The Family Next Door (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A-

In 2018 in Colorado a pregnant wife Shannan Watts and her two small daughters went missing in a case that became a national story.  The pieces of the puzzle come together through a presentation of sometimes intimate video clips and text messages from her and husband Chris. An initial air of unnatural calm becomes a façade that falls away.  Chris was unfaithful and fails a polygraph. Given that, and the title, the triple murder facts don’t really come as a big surprise, though what unfolds is still deeply shocking, including that Shannan’s distraught family became the target of social-media victim blaming.  Equally disconcerting is the endnote statistic that in America an average of three women are killed by intimate partners every day.

(More comment: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/american-murder-the-family-next-door-movie-review-2020.) 

Challenger: The Final Flight (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A-

This four-part docuseries of 40-50 minute segments examines the backstory to the 1986 U.S. space program disaster when the Space Shuttle “Challenger” exploded shortly after launch. Among those killed was the first civilian “citizen passenger”, teacher Christa McAuliffe.  Beyond their personal stories, we learn about serious concerns with the Space Shuttle program including warnings about a potential flaw in the main booster rocket that could, and did, prove catastrophic.  The bedeviled January launch, delayed several times, proceeded against engineering advice and despite freezing overnight temperatures.  The last and longest episode delves into the findings of a presidential commission of inquiry.  Though not the last space mission tragedy, it’s the one that most burdened NASA’s legacy.

More comment at: https://readysteadycut.com/2020/09/15/review-challenger-the-final-flight-netflix-series/. 

Public Trust: The Fight for America’s Public Lands (U.S. 2020)  A

This excellent documentary directed by David Byars is now available to watch on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OGjnIG7puzY .   It details the threats to some 640 million acres of public land held in trust by the American federal government that have come under assault from right-wing propagandists and lobbyists for a rogues gallery of corporate interests.  Some of this land, much of it in the American west and states such as Utah, is also of great significance for Indigenous peoples.  When resource development occurs the public often gets stuck with long-term costs (such as clean-up of abandoned sites).  The push for privatization has accelerated under the Trump administration, yet another reason why this November’s election is so consequential. One of the controversies discussed is the opening up to oil and gas exploration of a critical part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge—the coastal calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd.  This is also of significance to members of the Gwichin First Nation living on the Yukon side. Although not mentioned, it is strongly opposed by Canada.     

 

 

 

 

 

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