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Mid-September Viewing Options Update

Flying west recently for brief visits in Saskatoon and Calgary was a strange experience with everyone masked throughout and the only thing distributed being a sealed Air Canada “Clean Care” package including a small bottle of sanitizer, latex gloves, and an extra mask (though you already needed one just to enter the airport).  With almost no international routes operating, including from U.S. destinations, my return flight from Calgary to Toronto was on a big 300-seat Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner” with over 100 movies available on the entertainment system. 

            Older titles can sometimes be discovered on streaming services.  For example, I watched the 1989 France/Egypt coproduction Alexandria: Again and Forever after The New Yorker’s Richard Brody recommended it as “a masterpiece hiding on Netflix”.  Also recently added on Netflix: the documentary Capitalism in the 21st Century based on the book by Thomas Piketty (who is also a cinephile), and the fantastic Danish television series “Borgen” (see:  

Although I mostly gave the Toronto film festival a miss, I did get tickets for the digital talks, and for one selection, Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, which I watched online on the same day it was awarded the “golden lion” top prize of the Venice film festival.  More in a next post.

And with theatres reopening on a limited basis there are also new arrivals on the big screen to compete with the many streaming options.  So read on ….  

Tenet (UK/U.S. 2020,  B-

This was the ticket to entice me back to a multiplex theatre because a Christopher Nolan big-screen epic promises to be an event movie.  Critics in the UK where it opened on August 26 were divided—The Guardian called it a “palindromic dud” while The Telegraph raved about it being “the prefect film to get us back in cinemas—one viewing just won’t be enough”.   Unfortunately, as much as I have admired Nolan’s cinematic commitment and imagination, once was more than enough. John David Washington plays a central character identified as “The Protagonist”, some kind of CIA agent who teams up with Neil, an intelligence operative played by Robert Pattinson.  The movie’s title apparently refers to a shadowy organization, related to which is a cameo with an aged Michael Caine over dinner in London.  Globe-hopping locations include Kiev (for an opening assault in an opera house), Mumbai, and Oslo. The mission seems to involve averting a world-ending suicide which leads to a yacht on the Mediterranean and a menacing Russian oligarch and arms dealer Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) whose wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) hates him but is devoted to their son. Go figure.  The time-bending narrative, in which event “inversions” run backwards as well as forwards, includes numerous ultra-violent sequences. It all adds up to 150 minutes of spectacle that’s more mind-numbing than mind-altering.  This tale’s “tenet” invites the viewer’s surrender, past knowing or caring whether any of it makes sense.

And Tenet is not proving to be the recuperative boon that the chain theatres were expecting: The trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s forthcoming Dune raises hopes of better.

 Radioactive (UK/Hungary/China/France/U.S. 2019, B

Based on the book by Lauren Redniss, this earnest biopic directed by Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) profiles the remarkable life’s work of Marie Sklodowska (Rosamund Pike), the headstrong Polish émigré who became the scientific partner and spouse of Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Marie was a trailblazer, up against a male-dominated scientific establishment. Pierre insisted that she be equally acknowledged when their discovery of radioactivity and the novel elements radium and polonium was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903.  She was the first female recipient.  After Pierre was killed in an accident she became the first female professor at the University of Paris, and in 1911 received a second Nobel prize in chemistry.  An affair with physicist Paul Langevin provoked social disapproval.  Nonetheless her legacy was great. During the First World War Madame Curie helped pioneer the use of X-rays through mobile radiography in field hospitals.  A daughter became a successful scientist in her own right. Less effectively, the film rather clumsily inserts sequences of the future beneficial (in cancer treatment) and malign potential of radioactivity (the dropping of the first atomic bomb in 1945, nuclear weapons testing, the Chernobyl disaster). As always, advances in scientific knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

The One and Only Ivan (U.S. 2020, Disney+)  B

Although supposedly inspired by the true story of a gorilla named Ivan who was saved from poachers and raised by humans (the eponymous children’s book is by Katherine Applegate), this falls into the familiar fabled family-friendly Disney territory of talking animals.  Directed by Thea Sharrock, with a screenplay by Mike White (who has a few very brief moments on screen and voices a seal), the setting is an ailing circus at the Big Top Mall with Bryan Cranston in the role of the circus-master Mack and “Ivan” (voiced by Sam Rockwell) as the roaring chest-thumping alpha-ape headliner.  That is until Mack brings in an endearing baby elephant “Ruby” who revives the show’s fortunes by drawing a crowd after the elephant matriarch “Stella” passes on.  The humans seem rather clueless as the critters, including a one-line parrot, a rabbit and a chicken, converse among themselves and yearn for freedom beyond circus cages.  Ivan’s companion is a stray dog “Bob” (voiced by Danny DeVito) who provides comic relief and helps with a temporary breakout. Julia, the young daughter of Mack’s assistant George, has another key role that allows Ivan to become the “primate Picasso” and resume his place as main attraction.  In the end we are all led to hope for what’s best for the animal menagerie beyond the confines of circus life, and a future of animal happiness won’t come as any surprise.     

#Je Suis Là (“#Iamhere”, France/Belgium 2019) B

This mildly amusing dramedy directed by Eric Lartigau, stars Alain Chabat as Stéphane Lucas, a restaurateur and chef who decides to replace the stuffed animals on his bistro’s walls with a painting supposedly by a young French-speaking Korean woman “Soo” (Doona Bae) .  Before that we begin with a crowded boisterous wedding celebration (pre-pandemic obviously) for his son Ludo.  (Ludo is played by Jules Sagot who has a role in the fantastic French espionage series “The Bureau” on Sundance Now.  On the wedding night itself Stéphane spies Ludo snogging with another guy in the kitchen but that contrary element is just as quickly dropped.)  Our focus is on Stéphane père, a smartphone social-media messaging obsessive (as the film’s title with Instagram hashtag suggests), who becomes so enamoured with Soo that on impulse he flies to Korea in cherry blossom season to connect with her in person.  Arriving in Seoul’s futuristic Incheon airport, however, the trail goes cold.  Soo doesn’t show and no longer responds. After 11 days of misadventures inside the airport (during which Stéphane improbably become a “viral” online sensation), he finds a way into the city, bumbling his way around with gestures and snatches of broken English.  Eventually sons Ludo and David arrive to fetch back their wayward dad. No spoilers about whether the deluded Stéphane ever finds the elusive Soo.  In this “fish out of water” fable with an absurdist touch, let’s just say that the beginning of a beautiful friendship is not to be.    

The Personal History of David Copperfield (UK/U.S. 2019,  B+

Director Armando Iannucci’s previous film The Death of Stalin was a riotous satire.  Here he humours us with a fanciful take on the classic Charles Dickens novel.  A racially diverse cast includes actors of Indian ancestry in the titular roles of David as a young boy (Ranveer Jaiswal) and young man (Dev Patel). Mistreated by a cruel stepfather Mr. Murdstone (Darren Boyd), the orphan David is sent to labour in a bottle factory. Later, as an aspiring young gentleman, David encounters the hapless Mr. Micawber (Peter Capaldi), chronically pursued by creditors, a ditzy aunt (Tilda Swinton) and daffy scatter-brained husband Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie), as well as the unctuous and devious Uriah Heep (Ben Wishaw). There’s a fickle friend Steerforth (Aneurin Barnard) who calls him “Daisy”, and a first love interest Dora (Morfydd Clark).  David also gets to reunite with a beloved character from boyhood, Pegotty (Daisy May Copper).  British eccentricities abound in this playful recounting, bookended by David presenting his life story before a rapt audience and sprinkled with literary snippets.  It may not be what Dickens had in mind but it mostly works, with Patel bringing a winning panache to the lead role.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  B-

From idiosyncratic writer-director Charlie Kaufaman, this typically offbeat film inspired by Iain Reid’s 2016 novel starts with a long wintry drive by Jake (Jesse Plemons, who has a role in next year’s Black Panther drama Judas and the Black Messiah) to his folks’ farmhouse in Oklahoma.  He’s accompanied by a recent girlfriend (identified only as the “young woman”, but several times called Louisa, played by Jessie Buckley) who carries on a soft=spoken confessional babble of desiderata that includes a voice-over of silent thoughts.  From the start something seems off and foreboding. Then they arrive for dinner, which takes place over awkward conversation in a dark house with mom (Toni Colette) and dad (David Thewlis) appearing in differently-aged guises.  Are we in a twilight zone or down a rabbit hole? Adding to the stranger-things vibe are weird sequences with a white-haired janitor in a deserted school.  Estrangement may already be foretold as the couple drive back at night in a blizzard.  On the ride back the young woman bizarrely cites verbatim from a Pauline Kael review.  We’re in a surreal space of “no objective reality” that includes a stop at the school with the janitor and an off-the-wall interlude of cartoonish delirium. God knows what Kael would make of this human tragicomedy with its depressive and misanthropic meanderings. [*Tip: On the Kanopy platform is Rob Garver’s excellent 2018 documentary What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael.]  

The Social Dilemma (U.S. 2020, Netflix,  A

This excellent documentary premiered at the 2020 Sundance film festival which was lucky to beat the Covid pandemic.  It’s directed by Jeff Orlowski who’s known for acclaimed environmental docs (Chasing Coral, Chasing Ice).  Here he trains his probing cinematographer’s eye on the proliferating social-media landscape that is also subject to the effects of human-caused pollution. The title recalls the decade-old drama The Social Network about the origins of Facebook which has become a tool for spreading online hate and crazed conspiracies. The film opens with an apt aphorism from Sophocles: “Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.” To that ancient wisdom is added the troubling reflection that we have moved “from the information age to the disinformation age”.  (For malign influence one only has to consider how Donald Trump uses and abuses Twitter.)

            The Big Tech companies, which have risen to rank among the world’s most valuable, have a serious “viral” problem.  Orlowski interviews a number of former insiders who held senior posts, such as Tristan Harris, who’s identified as the closest thing Google had to a conscience.  (We are a long way from that Silicon Valley success story’s original motto “Don’t be evil”!) Harris has since co-founded the Center for Humane Technology. In the era of “surveillance capitalism”, these freely-available firms with their sophisticated algorithms compete for our attention and make money by mining and monetizing the data they capture.  Hence the observation: “If you are not paying for the product, you are the product.”  Sure, digital connections can have many benign uses.  But user beware, the mass social-media platforms can also be used for behavior manipulation and modification.  They can be “weaponized” to drive polarization, to spread lies, even to inflame violence.  (The film gives the example of Facebook being used in Myanmar to stoke deadly pogroms against the Rohingya Muslim minority.)  Online addiction may be a factor in rising levels of anxiety and depression among young people.  When deception goes viral it can be dangerous for democracy and social cohesion, perhaps even an existential menace. (Consider the dissemination of falsehoods about the current Covid-19 pandemic.)  We must be on guard against new forms of online fakery, confirming the adage that unless we learn how to control technologies we are liable to be controlled by them.   

[*Contrasting with the ubiquity of “social” media, is the paradoxical increase in loneliness, individualism, and social isolation as examined in the hour-long documentary The Great Disconnect ( directed by Ottawa-based film maker Tamer Soliman, an advocate for healthy and sustainable community-based living.]





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