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Halloween Viewing Update

The headline of an article in my October 19 Ottawa Citizen was “Don’t Netflix Away the Second Wave.”  Ok, I get it … don’t let the pandemic turn you into a couch potato, or wherever you settle down to binge watch.  Incidentally, the market value of Netflix, which now has almost 8,000 employees and 200 million subscribers, has multiplied 500-fold since 2002. What will this online trend do to cinema? (Check out: https://theplaylist.net/martin-scorsese-cinema-comfort-food-20200917/.  “A Year without Movie Buzz” laments The New Yorker’s Richard Brody.)

But with theatres closed again here (sigh) I’m glad for the streaming options even if the expanding array of choice can become overwhelming.  On TV, Crave’s The Good Lord Bird is great.  A review in The New Yorker praises its “mischievous irreverence” and Ethan Hawke is a holy terror as the militant abolitionist John Brown.  Meanwhile CBC is showing the compelling docuseries Enslaved.  HBO is wrapping up two fine series:  We Are Who We Are and the docuseries The Vow on the NXIVM sex cult, whose leader Keith Raniere was sentenced to 120 years on October 27.  As well, on October 28 HBO first broadcast the documentary The Soul of America (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Soul_of_America) based on Jon Meacham’s 2018 book The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels. (*As an aside, Joe Biden’s campaign tagline is “Battle for the Soul of the Nation”.)

[If you have HBO I also recommend the stirring performance of David Byrne’s American Utopia (A).  See comment at: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/david-byrnes-american-utopia-2020.]

            For a laundry list of titles going into next year’s delayed Oscar competition check out:

https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/feinberg-forecast-a-first-read-of-the-race-to-the-93rd-oscars.

What follows are brief reviews of some older and new titles, starting with a superb docuseries on TV.

Women Make Film: A New Road Movie through Cinema (UK 2018, TCM, https://www.womenmakefilm.net/)  A+

If you get the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel this many part documentary series by director and film historian Mark Cousins, airing Tuesday nights with commentary, is an absolute must-see. For the TCM schedule see: https://womenmakefilm.tcm.com/ For a commentary on the docuseries see:

http://blueprintreview.co.uk/2020/05/women-make-film-a-new-road-movie-through-cinema/

Tomka and His Friends (Albania, 1977, TCM, see below) A+

I am so grateful to the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel for showing this rarely seen 1977 masterwork on October 20, 2020 as part of its presentation of Mark Cousins' documentary series. Wondrous performances from the children especially.  The framing, the mise-en-scène, are astonishing.  And a small dog also has a role which might have earned a "palm dog" if this had been a selection of the Cannes film festival.  There's also a large black German guard dog but no spoilers on that.  Even a goat gets in on the act.  At the time of production Albania was a closed society and nowhere on the world cinema map.   So all the more remarkable. Thanks are due the Library of Congress for restoration and preservation. 

[*Note, on October 27 TCM screened the wonderful Norwegian comedy Fools in the Mountains, and next Tuesday November 3 (U.S. election night!) it will present Ida Lupino’s 1950 drama Outrage.]

The Perfect Weapon (U.S. 2020, HBO) B+

Based on David Sanger’s book, director John Maggio addresses the increasing threat of cyberattacks on target countries, exploring how online activities can be used for the malign purposes of disinformation and manipulation. Notoriously, prior to the 2016 U.S. election Russian hackers stole emails and Russian trolls operated to influence the result in favour of Donald Trump. [More comment at: https://ew.com/tv/hbos-cyber-warfare-perfect-weapon-trailer/. See also another 2020 HBO doc Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections.]  *Note: on October 21 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a warning that Iran and Russia were actively using cyber means to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election. For several views on the prospect of Russian cyber-meddling in 2020 see:

https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2020-08-11/putin-kremlins-plot-against-democracy

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

2040 (Australia 2019, Vimeo on demand, https://whatsyour2040.com/)  A

What story should we tell young people who will become adults during what’s likely to be an age of loss? What vision of the future should we create for them? …When we ask what story we should tell young people about the future, or what vision of the future we should create for them, we’re really asking what story we should tell ourselves.

Thomas Homer-Dixon, Commanding Hope: The Power We Have to Renew a World in Peril, 27-30 (https://commandinghope.com/)

Homer-Dixon’s new hopeful book with its message of youthful inspiration sometimes includes children’s illustrations.  So I thought of it in connection with the kids’ voices one hears in this documentary of facing environmental challenges narrated by writer-director Damon Gameau who wants a cleaner and more equitable future for his four-year old daughter Velvet.  Gameau’s travels in search of solutions—everything from decentralized energy networks like solar-powered electrical micro-grids in Bangladesh to marine permaculture—are “an exercise in fact-based dreaming”.  Humanity can get off a self-destructive path.  Among those interviewed is Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics (https://www.kateraworth.com/).    

The Mountain (U.S. 2018, Kanopy) B-

This rather dismal drama directed by Rick Alverson is set in 1950s backwoods America and stars Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Wallace Fiennes, a creepy psychiatrist specializing in lobotomies and electric shock treatments.  His assistant charged with taking polaraoids is a young man named Andy of impassive sullen expression played by Tye Sheridan, whose memorable first role was in Terrence Malick’s masterwork The Tree of Life.  The drift here is more misanthropic than transcendental.  Andy, whose mother is in a mental institution and was once treated by “Wally”, has taken up the task after his father Frederick (Udo Keir) died, having worked at the rink where the dad coached figure skaters.  The Canadian connection is Hannah Gross (daughter of Paul and Martha Burns) who is one of the patients and with whom Andy has a sexual encounter.  Freudian weirdnesss leads to a freak out, a wintery escape and suggestion of a frozen suicide. Sticking with the mountain metaphor, it’s more a downer than an elevation.

Time (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video, http://concordia.studio/projects/time/) A+

At a brisk 81 minutes, director Garrett’s Bradley’s superlative documentary in black-and-white explores the aftermath of a couple’s ill-fated 1997 attempted robbery when they were in the throes of financial desperation. Sibil Richardson was released after serving a few years but her husband Robert was sentenced to 60 years with no possibility of parole.  As Sibil says, it’s “almost like slavery time”.  She’s left to raise six children alone.  But she never gives up in taking on the landscape of a racialized prison-industrial complex with its soul-destroying waiting time.  Much of the film is taken from Sibil’s own home videos shot over many years during which her boys—including the twins “Freedom” and “Justus”—grow up to be fine young men.  And she is determined to overcome.  The only outcome she will accept is one where any tears shed will be ones of joyful release.

Totally Under Control (U.S. 2020, HotDocs at Home, Amazon Prime Video, and also free to watch until November 4 at: https://www.neonrated.com/totally-under-control-watch-free) A

At over two hours and completed just as President Trump tested positive for Covid-19, this Participant Media and Jigsaw production, narrated by director Alex Gibney is an almost day-by-day deep dive into the worsening of the pandemic across the United States.  The title comes from a typical early boast by Trump.  Employing a candid camera “Covidcam”, as experts and whistleblowers speak out, the evidence accumulates of a litany of failings by an Administration that had disbanded federal government capacity for pandemic preparedness—the denials, ignored warnings, deceptions, profiteering, disinformation, incompetence, scams, and more.  As revealed by the Bob Woodward book Rage, from early on Trump deliberately misled the public. [More comment at: https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/10/totally-under-control-essential-pandemic-documentary/616729/]  No doubt there will be more documentaries to come.  There are already several other good ones on how China responded—76 Days, Wuhan Wuhan, and Ai Weiwei’s Coronation.   

The Curve (Canada 2020, free on YouTube until November 4, https://www.facebook.com/TheCurveFilm)  A

At a brisk 59 minutes, writer-director Adam Benzine provides a condensed account of the mishandling of the viral pandemic, focusing on the first 3 months as the U.S. recorded the world’s worst outbreak. (At that point 100,000 Americans had died of the disease. As of October 31 the U.S. death toll had risen to over 235,000.) For additional commentary see: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/adam-benzines-covid-doc-the-curve-is-the-disaster-film-of-2020. 

How to Fix a Primary (U.S. 2020, https://www.facebook.com/FixAPrimary/) B+

If you recall Michigan governor Gretchen Witmer being in the news it’s because of the far-right plot to kidnap and kill her, another instance of domestic terrorism tacitly encouraged by Donald Trump who had issued a call to “liberate Michigan” while attacking Democratic governors during the pandemic.  However this documentary by Brittany Huckabee goes back to the Democratic primary of 2018 which Witmer won, and paints her as an establishment choice who also benefited from some “dark money”.  Indeed the two main old-line political parties are referred to early on as competing “crime families”.  That is the basis for suggesting that the “fix” is in versus insurgent candidacies.  Claiming to be “a story told from the inside of one outsider campaign”, the film focuses on the candidacy of 33-year old Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Muslim who is endorsed by left-wing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  (His people also try to get an endorsement from Bernie Sanders who finally shows up a couple days before the vote.) Another suggestion is the establishment Democrats try to “otherize” El-Sayed.   In addition to threats and anti-Muslim prejudice, another factor is a third candidate, an immigrant from India and self-made entrepreneur who calls himself a “fiscally savy Bernie Sanders: and uses his own wealth for his campaign.  The El-Sayed camp considers him a “fraud” but are unsuccessful in challenging the necessary signatures backing his candidacy so he stays on the ballot.  Although El-Sayed did not win he went on to become a CNN commentator and to put out a book. It’s not mentioned but the title is Healing Politics: A Doctor’s Journey into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic.  That sounds like a worthwhile read even if this film’s allegations of a “fix” do not quite stand up to scrutiny.  Moreover, in an encouraging sign of healing party divisions I might add that the Biden campaign has reached out to “Bernie” supporters during the 2020 presidential campaign, creating six “unity” task forces—with El-Sayed as a member of the one on health care.

The Three Deaths of Marisela Escobedo (Mexico 2020, Netflix)

Director Carlos Perez Osorio probes the shocking realities of murdered women and girls in Mexico—a daily average of ten, with 97% of “femicides” going unpunished—through the heartrending case in Chihuahua of Marisela whose 16-year-old daughter Ruby was killed in 2008 by a man named Sergio who, despite confessing to the crime, was acquitted and set free. The verdict which highlighted police and institutional corruption was widely protested.  Although the acquittal was overturned on appeal, by then Sergio had become a fugitive and joined a drug cartel which protected him.  Not only that but in 2010 while Marisela was engaging in a public peaceful protest she was murdered by an assassin, likely a cartel hit.  The miscarriages of justice don’t end.  Someone other than Sergio who was arrested for the murder had been framed and was subsequently strangled to death in prison.  Sergio himself was killed in a gun battle in 2012.  The case has been considered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  With no justice there’s no resting in peace.

Rebecca (UK 2020, Netflix)  C

Whatever possessed Brit director Ben Wheatley to do this remake?  He’s previously known for flaunting a transgressive style in films like Kill List, Free Fire and High-Rise. This is a handsome enough production of the 1938 Daphne Du Maurier novel, but totally unnecessary and not a patch on the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock classic which won the Oscar for best picture.  Here Armie Hammer and Lily James replace Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in the central role of the newlyweds who return from abroad to the estate of Manderley—with its ostentatious great house and Downtonesque excess of servants.  In this new version Kristin Scott Thomas is effective as the steely viperish head of household Mrs. Danvers.  But Hammer, dressed first in an awful mustard-coloured suit, is wrong for the part of an English aristocrat. Anyway, love story turns to creepy horror story, and back again after violent endings and a conflagration.  Stick with Hitchcock.

537 Votes (U.S. 2020, HBO, https://www.rakontur.com/537-votes) B+

On October 24 The New Yorker published an article with the title “What Can You Do if Trump stages a Coup?”.  This in the world’s supposed greatest democracy which since 2016 has degenerated to a “flawed democracy” according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s detailed global rankings.  The title refers to the eventual margin of George W. Bush’s supposed victory over Al Gore in the swing state of Florida in the 2000 election in which Gore won the national popular vote by a significant margin.  In the lead-up to that vote there had been a furious controversy over the young Cuban boy Elián who had been repatriated to Cuba by the Clinton administration as demanded by his father in Cuba.  The case inflamed Cuban Americans and no doubt cost Gore some votes. (The 2017 documentary Elián gives a detailed account.) Then there was the notorious aftermath of the contested vote—the “hanging chads”, the influence of Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone (a convicted felon subsequently pardoned by Trump) and threats of mob violence, the court battles and ultimate split Supreme Court ruling that stopped the vote recount, etc.—which put George W. in the White House.  (I was blessedly far away from this noise being on a marine expedition to South Georgia Island and Antarctica.) Interestingly, the TV networks had originally called Florida for Gore.  Imagine if that had held up or the count had been less problematic … imagine action on climate change, possibly no 9/11, no Iraq invasion, no ISIS?  A contested few votes can have world-historical import. [*It appears Florida will again be very close on November 3 as Cuban Americans are being targeted with pro-Trump propaganda.  One can only hope for a clear result that restores rather than undermines faith in American democracy.]  

What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (U.S. 2018, https://paulinekaelmovie.com/ Kanopy. DVD, and Film Movement Plus, https://www.filmmovementplus.com/) A

On October 21, 67 years to the day after it appeared in print, the New Yorker archive republished Kael’s review of Bonnie and Clyde which had been rejected by The New Republic and marked her transition to The New Yorker where she would pen more than 500 columns before retirement and became a legend. It still stands out as spectacular piece of writing.  I actually started watching this on an Air Canada flight, and also have the DVD that includes bonus features like Kael’s never-aired interview with Alfred Hitchcock.

            Kael, who also authored 13 books, was famously provocative, dismissive of pretensions, and not afraid to be contrarian. As she once retorted: “if they like you, you should be worried.” [One of the most savage attacks was by Renata Adler in The New York Review of Books: https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1980/08/14/the-perils-of-pauline/.]   Kael grew up on the west coast, had literary ambitions, several failed marriages, and was the single mother of a daughter Gina James who is interviewed in this spirited profile that includes clips from Kael on air and also from notable movies, including the notorious death scene in Bonnie and Clyde.  The perils of Pauline indeed!

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (U.S. 2020, HotDocs at Home) A+

I am a huge admirer of Werner Herzog and this is another remarkable collaboration with British geologist Clive Oppenheimer following 2016’s Into the Inferno on volcanoes. As narrated by writer-director Herzog in his unique voice and style, the subject here is meteorites and asteroids. The science goes into the properties of micro-meteorites (cosmic dust), quasi-crystals, embedded organic compounds, and more. There are visits to a Vatican observatory and NASA’s “Planetary Defence” system in Hawaii.  We know that collision with an extraterrestrial object can be catastrophic—most famously, the asteroid impact of 66 million years ago which wiped out the dinosaurs and most species. But maybe life came to earth from elsewhere in the universe? Meteorites figure in supernatural mythologies—the black stone in the “Kaaba” in Mecca, Islam’s holiest site; the Mayans and “day of the dead” rituals in Mexico; other ancestral beliefs and ceremonies. One of Herzog’s and Oppenheimer’s travels, in a Canadian helicopter, is to a vast Antarctic plateau with a South Korean polar research team. There are moments of otherworldly discovery.  Epiphanies are sometimes accompanied by haunting choral music to awesome effect.  [* The HotDocs presentation includes a half-hour q&a with Oppenheimer and Herzog on their process of material and metaphysical explorations through cinema. More on Herzog at: https://nationalpost.com/entertainment/weekend-post/werner-herzog-knows-whats-nigh-but-hes-as-unflappable-as-ever.]

Reversing Roe (U.S. 2018, Netflix) A

Directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg provide a useful history of the political battles over abortion in the U.S. between the self-described “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps; a perspective that is again very timely given the current battles over the composition of the Supreme Court.  In 1973 the Court (then composed of nine older white men; four of them Nixon appointees) made a landmark “Roe v. Wade” ruling that legalized abortion services.  The film observes that it was initially Republicans, on the basis of individual rights, who led the way in liberalizing abortion laws.  Since then there’s been the so-called “Moral Majority” and the inflaming influence of the evangelical Christian right.  Anti-abortion activities have occasionally become violent.  Under Republican influence many states have moved to restrict access to abortion services. Texas has been one of the emotional and political battlegrounds.  A highly restrictive law was struck down by the Supreme Court but with Ruth Bade Ginsburg replaced by a Trump appointee social conservatives will have hopes of achieving their aim to overturn Roe v. Wade and defund organizations like Planned Parenthood.  To keep this voting base Trump masquerades as “pro-life” (though as a recent New Yorker piece put is, he is more accurately described as “pro-infection”).  Much depends on the Democrats winning both the presidency and Congress.

Vampires vs. the Bronx (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B

Just in time for Halloween comes this amusing flick which features a trio of early teen boys from the ‘hood, different hues of brown to black, as the heroes of the story.  While on a mission to save a local bodega, they encounter pale-faced newcomers who turn out to be a nest of vampires.  Fortunately they are able to swipe some handy offences—communion hosts, holy water, and crucifixes—from a Catholic parish, and arm themselves with improvised wooden stakes for the coup de grace.  The horror trope serves as a metaphor for white gentrification.  Now if we could just get rid of the toxic white supremacist in the White House!

Wander Darkly (U.S. 2020, Video on demand) B+

Writer-director Tara Miele’s Sundance selection imagines a common-law couple Matteo (Diego Luna) and Adrienne (Sienna Miller), parents of an infant daughter, who are having issues.  On the way back from a party tragedy strikes in the form of a head-on collision.  So begins the “wander” through a twilight zone that could be afterlife (Adrienne as barefoot bodily apparition?) or post-traumatic reverie, or something else? Fine performances make this deliberately disorienting story worth a look.  

Watson (Australia/U.S. 2019, Video on demand)  A

I grew up close to the small Saskatchewan town of Watson. There’s no connection; neither to the companion of Sherlock Holmes.   The subject is Paul Watson, the intrepid protector of the vulnerable species and ecosystems of what he calls “planet ocean”.  Director Lesley Chilcott offers more than just a conventional biopic of “greatest hits” by a man celebrated as an environmental hero or attacked as an “eco-terrorist”.  We do learn a few personal details about his childhood, second marriage and young son.  Enhanced by archival footage, we also get a good idea of Watson’s evolution and direct-action exploits: the split from Greenpeace, the protests against the east coast seal hunt, the founding of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (now global with four ships) and its activities against illegal whaling, shark finning, and overfishing; sometimes leading to legal issues (notably with Costa Rica, Japan).  [*The Economist issue of October 24 has a detailed report on felonious fishing ‘The Outlaw Sea”.]  Beyond those highlights, much of the film has Watson, white-haired and pushing 70, speaking directly, calmly and compellingly, to the camera.  He’s an effective witness to the legacy of how one person can indeed make a difference to the fate of our biosphere’s life support systems. 

Oliver Sacks: His Own Life (U.S. 2019, HotDocs at Home, https://www.vulcanproductions.com/our-work/oliver-sacks-his-own-life) A

Acclaimed neurologist and author Oliver Sacks penned a candid autobiographical memoir and appears in this excellent biopic among colleagues and friends shortly before he died in 2015, having been diagnosed with a terminal cancer. Born into a British Jewish family, Sacks was something of a child prodigy and had an older brother who was schizophrenic. His interest in consciousness and the life of the mind became a subject of study, famously in his books—beginning 1973 with “Awakenings” (the basis for a 1990 film with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro) and including notable case histories.  An eccentric collector, Sacks was gay and got into bodybuilding, motorcycles, and drugs after moving to California. He had a self-destructive episode in Norway and then spent almost a half century in New York where he was fortunate to find a wonderful editor/assistant Kate Edgar (who became executive director of the Oliver Sacks foundation), and a partner Bill Hayes late in life.  His legacy is carried on at: https://www.oliversacks.com/.  

Deaf (U.S. 1986, Kanopy, http://zipporah.com/) A

The subject is the Alabama school for the deaf—its students, teachers, administrators, and a session with the mother of a boy who has been threatening suicide.  At 162 minutes this is one of Frederick Wiseman’s shorter observational documentaries.  His approach of direct cinema eschews any expository narration or even storytelling arc (very much in contrast to Werner Herzog or even more so Michael Moore.)  His films tend to be very long … still working at age 90 his latest City Hall focused on Boston clocks in at 272 minutes.  That can mean stretches that tend to drag, and I prefer what Herzog refers to as “ecstatic truth”, but patience also has its rewards. [*Coincidentally, after watching this I caught the drama Flesh and Fury on TCM which stars Tony Curtis (born Bernard Schwartz) as a deaf-mute prizefighter/  It was released in my birth year of 1952. And Netflix has put out yet another miniseries titled Deaf U, the 8 episodes of which offer a self-consciously hip and sexy portrait of life for deaf students at a Washington D.C. private liberal arts college.  For commentary see: https://readysteadycut.com/2020/10/09/deaf-u-netflix-review/.]

Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime to Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video) A-

Sacha Baron Cohen plays it almost straight as Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman in The Trials of the Chicago 7.  But he’s better known for his outrageous satirical spoofs.  It’s been 14 years since the first Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. (I had actually been to that benighted country, with a Canadian parliamentary committee no less.)  Borat is back, just in time for America’s feverish election.  The result is loony, scatological, sexist, transgressive, triggering, gross, and uproarious. This time Borat is joined by his daughter Tutar (Maria Bakalova who holds her own).  In various outré to offensive guises (including a fat suit and Trump mask) Borat crashes a conservative action love-in with Mike Pence, a conservative women’s meeting, and a far-right white supremacist event, among others. The prankster’s “gotcha” encounter with loathsome Trump sycophant Rudy Giuliani is priceless.  I was either shaking my head or busting a gut. There’s a certain power in ridicule.  Don’t watch if you are easily offended.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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