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Post- Thanksgiving Viewing Update

 

Is this the beginning of the end of the big screen?  I hope not! Ottawa theatres are shuttered again and thousands have closed across North America.  (All cinemas have stayed dark in New York and L.A. since March.) For a discussion of the prospects see the segment on this recent CBC radio program: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/day6

At the same time enormous amounts of good content are being added to streaming platforms.  However, let me begin with the best film I’ve seen this year— a 1977 Soviet one, The Ascent, by female director Larisa Shepitko.  (Tragically, it was her last feature as she and crew members were killed in a 1979 accident.)  This extraordinary masterwork was broadcast October 6 on the TCM channel as part of its presentation of Mark Cousins’ 14-hour docuseries Women Make Film: A New Road Movie through Cinema (A+).  More at: https://www.womenmakefilm.net/.  See also: https://womenmakefilm.tcm.com/

and  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_Make_Film

Reviews below begin with three fine documentaries.    I also note two new excellent German productions on Netflix.

David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (UK 2020, https://www.attenboroughfilm.com/ on Netflix from October 4)  A+

This eloquent and sobering “witness statement” by Sir David Attenborough opens and closes with the 94-year old in the ruins of Chernobyl, the city of 50,000 made uninhabitable by humans by the 1986 nuclear accident.  It shows the consequences of human error from what was only a single event, in comparison to the immense global biodiversity loss that is “the true tragedy of our time”. This testament shows Attenborough’s life journey exploring the wonders of the natural world while drawing attention to human-caused damage to ecosystems as earth moves from the relative “garden of Eden” stability of the Holocene to that of the Anthropocene. (One might call homo sapiens the ultimate invasive species.) Starting with Attenborough’s birth year of 1937, the film provides, at intervals, annual statistics of: world population, CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, and the percentage of remaining wilderness.   These chart concerning trends that could prove catastrophic for the living world.  We are indeed on a perilous course.  At the same time, arguing that “we must rewild the world”, Attenborough offers a hopeful “vision of the future” through social change, renewable energy, reforestation and attention to sustainability. By preserving and taking care of nature we will in fact be “saving ourselves”. Attenborough’s message and call to action is as profound as it is urgent.   [More comment at: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/david-attenborough-life-our-planet-netflix-review-b694281.html.  See also the collaboration between Attenborough and Prince William in establishing an “Earthshot” prize: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-54435638.]  

The Big Scary “S” Word (U.S. 2020, https://www.socialismmovie.com/) A-

At a time when many Americans are disaffected, which partly explains Trumpism, and Trump rants about Democrats as beholden to a radical left agenda, this is a timely documentary to demystify the propaganda wars over “socialism” in America.  Although public ownership exists in so-called Republican “red” states (e.g. the Bank of North Dakota), and there are examples of American roots including among the founders of the Republican party, socialism has become a “scare” word in American political history.  American millennials are less afraid of it, and there are recent examples of democratic socialists getting elected.  Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be the most prominent but we also get the example of former Marine Lee Carter in the Virginia state legislature (check out: https://www.carterforvirginia.com/) [Going back further it’s a bit surprising that no mention is made of the great American socialist thinker Michael Harrington. On his legacy see: https://jacobinmag.com/2019/07/michael-harrington-dsa-dsoc-democratic-socialism.]

The film of course makes a strong case for tackling extreme and rising inequality, taxing the wealthy, and funding public goods. It uses zippy animated segments to illustrate the evolution of socio-economic regimes. In that regard, also not mentioned is French economist Thomas Piketty who provides a much deeper analysis of the history of inequality regimes in his monumental tome Capital and Ideology, and who makes a rigorous case for participatory socialism on a global scale.  However it’s clear that the filmmakers are aiming at an American audience who have been warned so many times against the supposed evils of “socialism” even if it is, as philosopher Cornel West quips, “as American as apple pie”.      

Ask No Questions (Canada 2020, Amazon Prime Video, https://asknoquestionsfilm.com/)  A-

Thanks to Canadian Film Institute head and CBC Ottawa Morning film reviewer Tom McSorley for recommending this documentary which delves into the persecution of the “Falun Gong” (also known as “Falun Dafa”) meditation movement in the People’s Republic of China.  A harsh crackdown, including torture and “re-education”, ensued when this following was perceived as a threat to the Communist Party’s control.  A 2001 incident of self-immolation in Tiananmen Square by alleged Falun Gong practitioners is exposed as having been staged in order to discredit what state propaganda targeted as an evil cult.  The title turns on itself to question the tactics of totalitarian manipulation. Viewer beware.  [See also the interview with directors Jason Loftus and Eric Pedicelli: http://screenmag.com/story/2020/jul/29/12717/.]

The Boys in the Band (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  A

This new version, adapted by showrunner Ryan Murphy and directed by Joe Mantello, is inspired by the original 1968 off-Broadway play by Mart Crowley and features actors from the award-winning Broadway revival that opened in 2018, also directed by Mantello. There was also a previous 1970 feature film directed by William Friedkin.  (More background at: 

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Boys_in_the_Band_(play) The excellent principal actors, all openly gay, play a group of out gay men who gather for a birthday party in the stylish Manhattan apartment of Michael (Jim Parsons), an alcoholic and mass-going Catholic.  (Crowley was a graduate of the Catholic University of America.)  The birthday boy Harold is played archly by Zachary Quinto.  There’s a lot of bitchy dialogue and repartee but that fades to poignant messaging about the burdens of self-hatred which still resonates even if the atmosphere of the play is dated.  Although the 84-year old Crowley died in March prior to the Netflix release, it’s followed by a half-hour “Something Personal” special with him reflecting on the play and its legacy.

De Gaulle (France 2020)  A-

Director and co-writer Gabriel Bomin’s historical biopic confines itself (except for a few brief flashbacks) to the critical days of June 1940 when Hitler’s armies where storming across France.  Lambert Wilson, who was such a presence in the 2010 masterwork Of Gods and Men, excels in the role of the stalwart Charles De Gaulle, newly appointed a general and undersecretary of defence, who was sent to London to appeal to Britain’s new wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.  But that mission was fatefully terminated when the aging Maréchal Pétain (a hero of the First World War), with whom De Gaulle had tangled, seized control of the government and made his infamous Vichy deal with the occupying Third Reich. Indeed De Gaulle, on his third visit to London was then accused of treason and stripped of French nationality by the Vichy regime.  Warning of a “world war” and encouraging French free forces, he would remain in London and start making broadcasts on the BBC to rally the resistance.  At the same time, his family—wife Yvonne (Isabelle Carré), little daughter Anne who had Down’s syndrome, and son Phillipe—had fled to Brittany from where they made a harrowing escape by ship before being reunited with him in exile. The film is a stirring evocation of why De Gaulle became such a symbol of opposition to Nazi tyranny.    

Oktoberfest: Beer & Blood (Germany/Czech Republic 2020, Netflix, 6 episodes) A-

Although perhaps not as superlative as Babylon Berlin, this new German drama also boasts outstanding production design.  The setting is Munich circa 1900 and the intense, sometimes violent, rivalries among the leading beer suppliers and their ambitions.  (Although I’ve not experienced Oktoberfest I have visited Munich and seen the impressive preparations for this renowned Bavarian festival.) There’s lots of skullduggery and if not black magic, the eerie presence of some natives from German Samoa.  The first episode includes a riff from Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker”.  In the 5th episode a “Cinematograph” sensation segues into a gay sex scandal leading to suicide.  [For a related interview and more comment see:

https://www.whats-on-netflix.com/news/oktoberfest-beer-blood-interview-with-series-director-hannu-salonen/ and https://www.thereviewgeek.com/oktoberfest-s1review/.]  

A Perfect Crime (Germany 2019, Netflix, 4 episodes)  A

Even more than 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification, there is evidence of how great the political and socio-economic challenge has been.  (Indeed it’s the former Communist East that has become the most susceptible to anti-immigrant and far-right populist appeals.)  The crime in question, which remains unsolved, is the 1991 assassination in Dusseldorf of Detlev Rohwedder, a West German business executive who was put in charge of the “Treuhand”—the agency responsible for privatization and restructuring of the decrepit GDR (East German) economy, resulting in employment and social shocks that made him a target of discontent.  The murder, which bore the marks of a professional hit, was originally pinned on a “third generation” of the far-left terrorist group the “Red Army Faction” (several of whose now elderly members are among those interviewed).  However, a more probable attribution is to remnants of the “Stasi”, the GDR’s notorious secret police service. (More comment at: https://www.thereviewgeek.com/perfectcrime-s1review/.)

Fisherman’s Friends (UK 2019, Netflix, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fisherman%27s_Friends_(film) B+

This “true story” fairy tale directed by Chris Foggin goes to the Cornish coastal village of Port Isaac where a city-slicker music manager discovers a group of 10 local fishermen singing traditional sea shanties. The unlikely encounter leads to elements of romance, rescues, partings and pub-related pathos, a performance for the Queen’s birthday that becomes a YouTube sensation, a record deal, and a top ten hit. Improbably some of it actually happened and the film closes with images of the titular actual group’s 30-year career and riffs from their recorded songs.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (U.S./UK/India 2020, Netflix, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trial_of_the_Chicago_7) A-

Writer-director Aaron Sorkin’s dramatization of the notorious events of 1968 begins with a prologue—the assassinations of Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy, the escalation of the war in Vietnam—that sets the stage for the violent outcome of anti-war protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago which led to the subsequent trial of protest leaders on conspiracy charges.  Among brief archival bits, it includes Walter Cronkite’s sober pre-convention description of Mayor Richard Daly’s Chicago as a “police state”.  By the time of the trial new president Richard Nixon’s Attorney-General was the foul-mouthed bully John Mitchell, replacing Ramsay Clark (Michael Keaton) who would testify that it was in fact a police riot that incited the violence, though by this time the irascible hostile presiding judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) had sequestered the jury so they did not hear this exculpatory evidence.  Hoffman had also removed by mistrial the other defendant Black Panther Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who at one point was bound and gagged after repeated loud protests, including the fact that he was not represented by lead defence attorney William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) whose determination was undimmed by numerous contempt citations.  Others in the excellent cast include notably: Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong as respectively Yippy cofounders Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, Alex Sharp as Rennie Davis, John Carroll Lynch as David Dellinger; and on the other side of the courtroom Joseph Gordon-Levitt as assistant prosecutor Richard Schultz.  Cohen and Strong provide some agitprop levity but of course it was deadly serious even if, in effect, a political show trial.  Early on one defendant calls it “the Academy Awards of protest … and it’s an honor just to be nominated.” The most stirring moment comes when Redmayne as Hayden, addressing the court for the group, begins reading then names of the young men recently killed in Vietnam and much of the court erupts in applause with raised fists as the judge furiously pounds his gavel.  (In reality there were no cameras present but this is a drama not a documentary.)  The five-year sentences handed down would be overturned and a postscript adds a few more post-trial info snippets on Rubin, Hoffman, and Hayden.   The timing of this reminder is interesting in light of the hyper-polarization of today’s America. (As a footnote, the movie’s producer Marc Platt is the father of singer-songwriter-actor Ben Platt who stars in the Netflix series ‘The Politician”.)

The 40-Year-Old Version (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B

I loathed 2005’s pathetic The 40-Year-Old Virgin.  This contemporary dramedy, filmed in black and white as if to highlight a racialized subtext, includes plenty of profane vulgarity but is a heck of a lot smarter and truer to life. No one will laugh at its subject, writer-director Radha Blank who earned a directing prize at the Sundance festival. She plays a version of herself as a struggling New York playwright and performer who also teaches theatre to teens. About to turn 40, Radha reinvents herself as a hip-hop rapper who gets moral support from gay Korean friend Archie (Peter Kim) and who puts on a successful play in Harlem. The real Radha actually has a sometime standup gig as an artist who goes by “RadhaMUprime”. Although long (129 minutes) and often crude, the movie has its moments as a black woman taking control of her situation.

Dick Johnson is Dead (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A

Winner of a special jury award at Sundance, veteran documentarian Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) presents an unusual and emotionally intimate homage to her father, C. Richard “Dick” Johnson, a retired Seattle psychiatrist, and Seventh-Day Adventist, who has moved into her small New York apartment and is showing signs of dementia.  His wife and Kirsten’s mother had advanced Alzheimer’s when she died some years earlier.  Dick plays along when Kirsten stages his mock death by accident.  She also concocts a few heavenly, or Halloween, fantasies. Dick is present when, several years earlier, there’s even a memorial service held for him in his Seattle church, and one of the elderly speakers paying tribute is overcome. There are also affecting family home-movie scenes as when Kirsten’s two young kids make a chocolate cake for Dick’s 86th birthday.  Love like that you can’t make up.  [See also this director interview: https://www.documentary.org/online-feature/dick-johnson-dead-kirsten-johnson-stages-her-dads-demise.]  

Dolly Parton: Here I Am (UK 2019, Netflix) A-

Busty with big blonde hair and wigs, the much-loved country-pop artist with the distinctive high-pitched voice has had a remarkable career, including in TV and film, spanning over a half century. Dolly, who grew up in a poor Tennessee family of 12, is also the writer of over 3,000 songs, including monster hits like “I Will Always Love You”.  Francis Whatley’s compelling profile includes interviews with Dolly, professional commentaries, and reminiscences by Jane Fonda and Lili Tomlin with whom she starred in the movie 9 to 5 while also composing its theme song.  Though small in stature, we get a true appreciation of why Dolly’s rise to bigtime stardom is uniquely her own.      

The Good Lord Bird (U.S. 2020, 7 episodes, Showtime/Crave)  A

This excellent miniseries began airing Sundays on October 4. Each hour-long episode opens with: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.”  Based on James McBride’s eponymous award-winning 2013 novel, it relates the exploits of fiery religious zealot and abolitionist John Brown who is played with great verve by Ethan Hawke.  (See the recent New Yorker profile of this remarkable actor: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/09/21/the-many-faces-of-ethan-hawke.) The unusual witness narrating the story, starting from “bleeding Kansas”, is a boy raised as a slave, Henry Shackleford known as “Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who’s dressed as a girl. Brown famously led an ill-fated armed raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia 161 years ago to this day (October 16, 1859), for which he was executed, a prelude to the Civil War during which “John Brown’s Body” became a rallying anthem for Union troops.  (As an aside, Ellar Coltrane, who was the boy to Hawke’s dad in Richard Linklater’s 2014 masterwork Boyhood, has a role as one of Brown’s surviving sons Salmon.   (Salmon, who was lucky not to have been part of the 1859 raid, died by suicide in 1919.) For more timely commentary and history see:

https://www.theverge.com/2020/10/9/21508420/the-good-lord-bird-tv-show-review-showtime

https://theconversation.com/in-the-good-lord-bird-a-new-version-of-john-brown-rides-in-at-a-crucial-moment-in-us-history-146653

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/john-browns-day-of-reckoning-139165084/

Healing from Hate: The Battle for the Soul of a Nation (U.S. 2020, on demand) A-

Based on Michael Kimmel’s eponymous book, this is an exploration of far-right (or “alt-right”) and neo-Nazi extremism in America, the primary source of domestic terrorism in that country, and of those who have succeeded in moving away from it, healing themselves in the process.  The film looks at the efforts of the organization ‘Life After Hate” (see: www.lifeafterhate.org/exitusa).  The subject is disturbingly timely in light of the first Trump-Biden presidential debate in which Trump gave tacit encouragement to white supremacists (calling on them to “stand back and stand by”).  [There’s also a source reference to a 1995 Canadian documentary Hearts of Hate directed by Peter Raymont.]

All In: The Fight for Democracy (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video) A

Another timely documentary, directed by Lisa Cortes and Liz Garbus, “shines a spotlight on the weaponization of voter suppression tactics across America”, with a particular focus on the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia. Recall that was when Stacey Abrams—who would have been the first Black female governor—narrowly lost to Republican Brian Kemp who was the secretary of state overseeing the election in what she called a “pernicious” process that was contested in the courts.  Abrams relates her inspiring personal story as well as the nation’s challenging history of the struggle for the right to vote which has been marred by discrimination, racism and violence. (In 1789 only 6% of the new republic’s population enjoyed it.  Although the Civil War extended the franchise to male African Americans, after “Jim Crow” only 3% of eligible African Americans were registered to vote.)  Moreover, the U.S. still has the anachronism of the Electoral College for presidential elections as well as flawed state-run systems.  Then a 2013 5-4 Supreme Court decision struck down a key provision of the landmark 1960s Voting Rights Act. The filmmakers observe how the coalition that twice elected Obama has become “the hit list for voter suppression”. They note that the Electoral Integrity Project ranks the U.S. last among liberal democracies.  (They might have added that the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual “Democracy Index” has since 2018 downgraded the U.S. to a “flawed” from a “full” democracy.   Viewers will find more evidence confirming that troubling result.)

Save Yourselves! (U.S. 2020, on demand) B-

Directed by Alex Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, this is a low-budget two-hander about what happens when a Brooklyn yuppy couple—Jack (John Reynolds) and Su (Sunita Mani)—decide to unplug and spend some time in an upstate cabin.  While they try to resist temptation to turn on their phones the world is being overwhelmed by a weird alien invasion (the aliens are fuzzy blobs that can zap you by sending out rope-like tentacles).  The idyll is interrupted and there’s a late scene with a baby as they try to escape.  It’s a slight affair with an absurdist premise but there’s some amusement to be found from the couple’s quirky habits and predicament.

The Disrupted (U.S. 2020, https://thedisruptedfilm.com/ Amazon Prime Video) A

This verité documentary directed by Sarah Colt and Josh Gleason delves into the struggles of working Americans through the lives of three families.  Donn is a cigar-smoking 62-year old Kansas small farmer, and a vice-president of the National Farmers Union, who worries about making ends meet, a heavy debt load, and planning for succession with his two sons.  He also survives a cancer operation. Pete from Ohio lost his union job when the 3M plant closed. He had a tough upbringing and has served time. He has to find a new career as tensions increase within his family. Cheryl is an Uber and Lyft driver in Tampa, Florida who quits that after taking a marketing opportunity with a line of personal care products.  How quickly misfortune can strike is underlined when she hits a cyclist. Although each situation is very different on the surface, all highlight the pressures of economic stress and distress at a time when America has the greatest wealth disparity among Western nations.  (I might add that this increasing inequality has been made even worse by the current pandemic.)  

Coming Home Again  (U.S,/South Korea 2019, on demand) B+

Directed by Wayne Wang and based on a story by Chang-rae Lee, this small intimate film is about a son (Justin Chon) who quits his job and returns home to San Francisco to care for his mother (Jackie Chung) who is suffering from stomach cancer.  Despite that, he lovingly prepares a traditional Korean New Year’s eve family dinner.  There’s no cure but it’s the thought that counts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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