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End of Year Viewing Update for Christmas Eve

 First a lament for the cherished ByTowne Cinema which will be closing permanently in a few days, another casualty of this awful pandemic year.  Less than 15 minutes walking distance from my house in Ottawa, its big screen will be greatly missed.  Indeed, on January 1 there will be only a single theatre screen still open across the entire Ottawa-Gatineau metro area. [More comment at:]   What theatrical presence will be left? [Have a listen to:]

This is the season for “best of” lists.  Usually the National Board of Review ( is the first.  But it is delaying its announcement till January 26.  Mine will also wait till next January but for some early comment see:]  What will not change is my choice of Nomadland as #1, and for a feature on its principal actor see:]  A release is planned for February.

I am also a huge fan of master filmmaker Werner Herzog and on his approach see:]

On the TV scene I am a devoted follower of the Turner Classic Movies channel ( and recently watched 3 fine docs it presented: Marsha Hunt’s Sweet Adversity, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, and For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism. (TCM also recently showed the 1948 drama Enchantment, an American-British war story in which I noted that the character played by Farley Granger wears a Canadian airforce uniform.)

HBO keeps adding excellent new documentaries.  First aired on December 16 was The Art of Political Murder about seeking justice for the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi just days after he delivered an investigatory report on mass human rights crimes “Guatemala, Never Again”. [For background see:]

Now on to views and reviews, starting with several Christmas movies, then series, and more features.

Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B+

Set in a fictional town of Fullerville, Kansas, this features exuberant song and dance numbers and of course songs from Dolly who appears as both a panhandler and sparkly Christmas angel.  The grinchy bitchy antagonist is Regina (Christine Baranski), the “Queen of Mean” who wants to evict everyone on Christmas Eve.  But turns out she has daddy issues.  As an unwed mother he forced her to give up her baby boy. Of course, like Scrooge she has a change of heart that involves a lost love and the local pastor named Christian.  There’s also a Christmas miracle for a little girl named Violet. Sure it’s schmaltzy, but with a pointed spiritual anti-capitalist greed vibe. And as the angel Dolly says: “It’s impossible to forgive others if you haven’t forgiven yourself.”

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A-

Released back on November 13, this fable set in a Victorian era with a mostly African-American cast provides for fine family-friendly viewing.  The storybook plot revolves around Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whitaker), a master inventor and owner of a toy shop.  After an assistant steals the master’s book of inventions a little girl named Journey comes to the rescue.  The tale is enlivened by energetic song and dance sequences along with the wondrous animation of toys come to life for a magical effect.  Nothing will replace Christmas musical classics like 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis but this should bring some welcome holiday cheer suitable for all ages.

The Crown (UK 2020, fourth season, 10 episodes, Netflix)  A+

The fourth season, with Olivia Colman as Her Majesty, is the best yet.  (Colman is also the narrator of the documentary Nasrin, a compelling profile of courageous Iranian human rights defender Nasrin Soutedeh.  On the dire human rights challenges facing women in Iran see also the searing drama Yalda-A Night for Forgiveness ( “The Crown” has come in for criticism that it takes dramatic liberties in exaggerating conflicts within the royal family and in the frosty relationship between the Queen and Mrs. Thatcher … which may be so but seems very plausible. The production and performances are first rate. [I may have already mentioned that I met Josh O’Connor (who portrays Prince Charles) at the 2017 Sundance festival wrap party. He was there for the premiere of Francis Lee’s (Ammonite) God’s Own Country. O’Connor is in fact  a left -wing republican:] For season five there will be some new actors in key roles.   And speaking of queen’s … 

The Queen’s Gambit (US 2020, 7 episodes, Netflix)  A+

Netflix keeps adding quality series and this one, deservedly drawing raves, is apparently the most popular ever. Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, the story set in the 1960s follows the rise of Beth Harmon to the top of the chess world.  A red-haired orphan girl in Lexington, Kentucky, she learns the game for a janitor in the basement of a home for girls. Adopted as a teen (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy), she becomes a chess prodigy, besting male rivals (and bedding several) on the way to becoming American champion. Invited to Moscow she overcomes a boozy self-destructive phase to triumph over a string of Soviet grandmasters; the climax being beating the stone-faced world champion.  It’s still the Cold War but in a delightful conclusion Beth escapes her state Department propaganda minder for the sheer pleasure of the game. [More comment at:]

Small Axe (UK 2020, 5 films, BBC and Amazon Prime Video, A

From director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) comes this series based on the experiences of the West Indian community in Britain.  The title of the excellent first film Mangrove, which runs over two hours, comes from the name of a restaurant that was a Caribbean community hub in the Notting Hill area of London and became a focal point in clashes with a racist Metropolitan police force, with raids leading to the trial of the “Mangrove Nine”. 

Your Honor (U.S. 2020-2021, 10 episodes, Crave) A+

I’ve just watched the 3 episodes aired to date but this is a gripping series with Bryan Cranston in the role of the judge trying to save his son—who has killed someone in a hit-and-run accident—from the deadly vengeance of a crime family.

First We Eat (Canada 2020,  A

This documentary records the personal witness of Yukon filmmaker Suzanne Crocker (as writer-director and cinematographer) to the commitment of her Dawson City-based family of five (husband and three reluctant teenagers) to living for one year entirely 100% local off the land, meaning without any store-bought items. That would be a challenge anywhere in Canada.  At a latitude of 64 degrees north feeding an entire family through the seasons including a long winter seems more like mission impossible.  Crocker had previously produced the award-winning 2014 documentary All the Time in the World ( which followed her family’s experience living through an entire far northern winter without electricity, running water, or clocks. So she embraces what many would consider an extreme approach.  Filming for this pursuit started in 2017.  I should add that in this case her family’s challenge doesn’t require a reversion to only premodern amenities.  Quite the contrary as multiple electric-powered freezers were involved along with other appliances.  There’s no wood-fired oven for example.  It is also most definitely NOT a vegetarian, much less vegan, option.  There’s lots of meat and dairy involved.  I grew up on a mixed farm with chickens, pigs, and cattle so am used to some of the less pleasant scenes, except the moose hunting ones (although I did have a gun at one point).  The birth of a calf brought back better memories.  I could also understand the craving for bagels.  Crocker succeeds in making a “food sovereignty” point.  However, such an effort, if followed strictly as in this case, is bound to be both complicated and time-consuming to say the least.  Getting enough food on the table also depends on several cooperative neighbors for some of the locally-sourced bounty.  One can applaud the evident persistence without finding it to be either practical or sustainable except as an isolated and temporary experiment.  Not just Yukoners will be impressed even if I can’t see anyone rushing out to copy such a regimen.  The aphoristic tagline which accounts for the title is: “First we eat, then we do everything else,” from the late American food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher.  When feeding a family takes so much time and obsessive effort, one wonders how much time is left for other pursuits.   Crocker relates that her blood pressure improved as a result.  I’d like to know for how long.  What about other aspects of quality of life?  Questions that are left for another film.     

Les Rose (Canada 2020, National Film Board/ Babel Films, free to watch on the NFB site)  A-

Helmed by Félix Rose, the son of Paul Rose, this is an insightful if problematic exploration of a family that was centrally involved in the 1970 “October crisis” in which a British diplomat James Cross was kidnapped by a cell of the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec), following which another cell abducted then “executed” Pierre Laporte, vice-premier of Quebec.  The federal Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measure Act suspending civil liberties and the army was in the streets of Ottawa. I recall the events well, while at home on our farm in Saskatchewan, although preoccupied with several family tragedies (that’s another story).   The FLQ members who held Cross released him in exchange for being allowed to flee to Cuba.  The cell with Paul and brother Jacques Rose that killed Laporte was hunted down and captured.  Paul got a life sentence but was released after 12 years and died in 2013. The film, which includes an interview with Paul, his mother, and other archival sources, recounts some of what happened in the febrile atmosphere of the times.  But it also allows the surviving FLQ members (Jacques Rose I believe) to justify the resort to terrorism.  Most telling, and disturbing, is the statement: “when we call the shots, maybe then we’ll believe in them (the rules of democracy)”.   In other words, this “revolutionary” vanguard asserted the right to impose its will on the population by any means necessary, including murdering elected politicians.  Lenin might approve.  (Marx never had the chance to implement what he and Engels meant by “the dictatorship of the proletariat”).  The FLQ cell that murdered Laporte took collective responsibility, and this documentary which explains their ideology, sheds no light on the actual killing.  Perhaps not surprisingly given that the director is Paul’s son, it’s also all about the Rose family, with no hint of the devastating consequences for the Laporte family. The story is that of the perpetrators, who clearly saw themselves as historical figures, not the unfortunate victims.  Maybe that missing piece deserves a film of its own? [See also this commentary in The New York Times:]

Black Bear (U.S. 2020, B+

This unusual drama from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine, which premiered in the edgy “NEXT” section of the 2020 Sundance film festival, isn’t about bears at all although one does get a few seconds of screen time. The first part is a three-hander set in a cabin in the woods when Allison (Aubrey Plaza) visits Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon). Allison is supposedly a filmmaker or a “difficult” actress or both.  She’s apparently also a jealous lush leading to a wild and crazy climax.  Then cut to part two in which the same setting is actually that of a chaotic indie film shoot in which Gabe is the director and there’s a Gabe lookalike for the scenes with the two women. As the camera careens about it captures another drunken freakout. Roles are upended if not reversed.  What is fiction and what is reality bleed into one another.  Or is this just a scenario in Allison’s imagination? No surprise that the film provokes some bearish reactions despite excellent performances by Gadon and Plaza.   

Dear Santa (U.S. 2020,, on demand) B+

Well timed for the season, writer-director Dana Nachman profiles the U.S. Postal Service’s “Operation Santa” that has been running since 1907 and is now digitized too as it employs a small army of “elves” (there are also adopter elves, mini-elves, and emergency elves) to respond to the letters from kids across the country (and a few adults too).  That can include special deliveries (including a puppy and a bunny). Kids voices and wishes add to a high heartwarming factor.  The most affecting stories are of families facing challenges—living in low incomes or having lost home to disasters like wildfires. As a Catholic kid growing up in rural Saskatchewan I had minimal Santa exposure (it was the Bethlehem of “baby Jesus” and “holy family” in our house, not jolly St. Nick down the chimney).  Still, as a production from pre-pandemic times, this is a welcome touch of in-person Christmas spirit, not to mention an antidote to Trump’s grinchy raging against the postal service over mail-in voting that favoured Democrats.  And we could all use some good cheer while “Biden” our time to a better new year.

White Noise (U.S. 2020, A

The Atlantic’s first documentary, helmed by Daniel Lombroso, is an incisive exploration of the far-right “white nationalist” movement, also known as the “alt-right”, which was encouraged by the 2016 victory of Donald Trump.  Indeed, at the time, one of its leading exponents Richard Spencer exulted that “the alt-right just won!”.  He has also boasted that “we willed Donald Trump into office”.  In a notorious address to followers including neo-Nazis he exclaimed: “Hail victory! Hail Trump!”.   Other noisy extreme right figures include the “men’s rights” advocate Mike Cernovich who glorifies rape, and sadly a young Canadian woman Lauren Southern who fans anti-Muslim and anti-migrant/refugee prejudices.  She’s fashionably arrogant, and despicable. She’s shown presenting her film “Borderless” to the far-right fringe in the European Parliament. Some of these shameless characters may be more pathetic than dangerous.  But far-right ideology, fanned by conspiracy mongering and online trolling, can have violent consequences leading to domestic terrorism as explored in the ProPublic/PBS Frontline documentary “Documenting Hate” New American Nazis which is available on CBC Gem through “The Passionate Eye” documentary program.  The threat is most evident in murderous lone-wolf attacks as incited by clandestine groups like the “Atomwaffen Division” which draws its inspiration from fascist guru James Mason’s manifesto Siege, and which attempt to attract followers with military training.  Interviewed for the film, Mason insists that to make America great again it is necessary to “make America white again”.  The racist Trumpist subtext could hardly be more explicit. As Trump and his enablers shamelessly continue to try to subvert American democracy, these are timely reminders of the social viruses of hate spread by hate groups that are ignored at our peril.  [More at:]

The Midnight Sky (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B+

A greybeard George Clooney directs himself in this sombre sci-fi dystopia, adapted from a 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight” by Lily Brooks-Dalton, set in a post-apocalyptic future, February 2049 to be exact.  Earth appears to be uninhabitable for the most part and Clooney plays Augustine, a solitary figure in an Arctic observatory.  He also appears to have a terminal illness while self-medicating with alcohol.  Actually he’s not alone as he discovers a mute young girl named Iris who’s been left behind.  The only other humans we see are those on an elaborate space station that suffers a series of troubles.  Out of billions of potential “exoplanets” apparently one has been found orbiting Jupiter that’s “just right”—i.e. in the ”Goldilocks zone”. Back on planet earth, Augustine and Iris need a plan.  At first they wear masks (oxygen?) to go outside but later they do not when they undertake a perilous journey by snowmobile in a raging blizzard to get to a deserted station at Lake Hazen to attempt communication with the spaceship.  (Filming mostly took place in Iceland although Lake Hazen, which has often been used by scientific parties, is located on Canada’s Ellesmere Island.)  At one point the pair come across a plane crash with a badly injured survivor.  At another Augustine temporarily loses Iris in a whiteout.  Anyway man and girl make it and establish contact.  No spoilers about what happens then. Let’s just say that the storyline recedes with faint hope facing into a glowing sky.  

[More comment at:] 

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (U.S. 2020, Netflix) A

Set in Chicago circa 1927 this superb drama based on August Wilson’s eponymous Pulitzer-prize winning play evokes the music of the “bound for the promised land” great migration of African Americans from the South to cities like Chicago. [Note that former president Barack Obama, whose political base was in Chicago, titles his memoir A Promised Land.] That history is the backdrop to this story which takes place during a single day in several rooms of a recording studio where Black musicians are creating the popular bluesy “race records” put out by companies like Paramount run by white executives.  Led by singing diva Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, the “Mother of the Blues”, the talent includes her backup band for a recording session during which she insists on an introduction by a stuttering nephew.  The temperamental Ma, all made up with gold teeth, is played by Viola Davis.  It’s an astounding performance, as is that of the late Chadwick Boseman (Black Panther, Da Five Bloods) as Levee, the upstart trumpet player with whom she clashes in a contest of wills.  Boastful and hotheaded, Levee also rages against the Almighty in one scene; his lack of self-control later results in tragedy. At one point he speaks of death, which almost seems a premonition as Boseman died of colon cancer last August, making this his final screen performance. Oscar nominations are certain for Davis and Boseman, who like the late Heath Ledger, deserves to win posthumously for a movie that memorably honours his talent.  And for a deeper appreciation of the source material, on Netflix be sure to continue watching the 31-minute bonus feature on “A Legacy Brought to the Screen”.

The Prom (U.S. 2020, Netflix) B+

Meryl!  As in Meryl Streep who has already shown she has the vocal pipes in Mama Mia! and Ricki and the Flash.  She gets to vamp it up in this glittery fantasy of gay-friendly acceptance from gay showrunner Ryan Murphy (creator of “Glee” and “The Politician”) as part of his huge multi-year deal with Netflix.  The scenario, drawing on an actual incident and eponymous Broadway stage musical, involves theater stars from a musical “Eleanor!” traveling to conservative Indiana where a high-school prom has been cancelled because Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) plans on taking a lesbian romantic partner of colour Alyssa (Arian de Bosse) … horrors.  Streep as Dee Dee Allen is accompanied by funnyman James Corden as Barry Glickman and as Angie Dickinson, Nicole Kidman (having much more fun here than as the wronged woman in the series “The Undoing”) who can also belt it out (as she proved in Moulin Rouge!). It’s  an infectious romp on how the gospel imperative to “love thy neighbor” triumphs over the censorious Christian right, but see this commentary at:]   

Let Them All Talk (U.S. 2020, Crave/HBO Max)  B+

Director Steven Soderbergh hasn’t given up on filmmaking and this amusing and very talky trifle was apparently shot in a week on an actual voyage of the luxurious ocean liner Queen Mary II carrying 2, 600 passengers across the Atlantic from New York to England. It’s the Meryl show again … this time playing an authorial drama queen Alice who has been awarded a (fictitious) British “Footling prize” for her latest novel, and refuses to fly, so this is the only way to get there to accept in person.  And unlike grim-faced climate change child icon Greta Thunberg, Alice insists on traveling in style.  Not just for herself but an accompanying coterie of several friends with issues, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), as well as a nephew Tyler (Luca Hedges) who takes a shine to Alice’s literary agent Karen (Gemma Chan).   Even more delightful on the page is Anthony Lane’s witty review:  

Song Without a Name (Peru/Spain/U.S./Chile 2019)  A

Director and co-writer Melina León’s evocative drama, which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, is shot in stark black-and-white using a retro squarish (4:3) aspect ratio.  The story it tells is based on actual cases of child trafficking in Peru as told to León by her journalist father Ismael. The setting is Peru in the 1980s—with state corruption and repression rife at the same time as the country is menaced by the violent extremism of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) insurgency.  The central character is an Andean Indigenous woman Georgina (Pamela Mendoza), heavily pregnant, who makes trips to the city to sell potatoes in the market. We sense her husband may be a sympathizer of the guerillas who were active in rural areas from which they staged attacks. Lured by a radio advertisement, Georgina goes to a free clinic to give birth.  But it’s a scam as her newborn daughter is snatched away, she’s quickly hustled out, and the fake clinic disappears. After failing to get any help from the authorities, a desperate Georgina finds a sympathetic journalist Pedro (Tommy Párraga) to pursue the cause of her distress.  Significantly, he also bears the mark of a marginalized existence, with features indicating some Indigenous ancestry, and as a closeted gay man (though the latter is only fleetingly hinted at.) When Georgina sings a closing lullaby there’s a spark of hope suggesting the human bonds that endure within these systems of injustice.  [*We could also use some human empathy during these dark days.  And Peru has been on my mind.  I was scheduled to do a trek to Machu Picchu in late March as a “charity challenge” to benefit CUSO, but like so much else those dates were cancelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Postponed several times, the trek is now set for the fall of 2021, to be reassessed again in 2021 given that Peru has been badly affected by the virus. My previous time in Peru was in 1977 during a situation of martial law and strict curfews when armed forces controlled the streets of Lima. Traveling by local transport to Cuzco and Machu Picchu I also passed through places such as Ayacucho where the Shining Path was becoming notoriously active. Peru is still very troubled politically and socially but I am looking forward to an equally memorable if less fraught 2021 experience.]

Rose Island (Italy 2020, Netflix)  B+

Inspired by a true story, director Sydney Sibilia recounts how an idealistic engineer Giorgio Rosa, exasperated by Italian bureaucratic harassment, constructs a self-governing “island—

actually a floating platform—off the coast of Rimini, just far enough offshore to be outside Italian territorial waters.  He gathers a supporting cast, and also hosts a summer party crowd. There is even a quixotic 1968 attempt to get recognition of sovereignty by the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. (I traveled to Strasbourg and attended Council meetings many times when I was advisor to the Canada-Europe Parliamentary Association and Canada had official observer status.) It’s a rather absurdist episode that didn’t survive the Italian navy but entertaining while it lasts.

Mulan (U.S./Canada/Hong Kong 2020, Disney+ B

This extravagantly produced $200 million+ epic fable about a legendary female warrior in imperial China was made in the expectation of being a theatrical tentpole blockbuster, then Covid emerged from present-day China.  The release was delayed, then the film was put on Disney’s streaming platform for a hefty additional fee, and now it’s available for no additional charge. Mulan disguises as male to enter the emperor’s army service and executes exceptional skills up against sinister black-robed invaders and their witch ally. Shot in New Zealand and China, it's somewhat of a visual feast even on the small screen, and as helmed by Kiwi Niki Caro, is supposedly the most costly movie directed by a woman.  The spectacle diverts more than the historic wonder-woman story instructs.  [Critical reaction has been very divided ranging from a “100%” to a “25%” rating on]

I’m Your Woman (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video) B

The best thing about this dark ‘70s-set drama directed and co-written by Julia Hart is the performance of Rachel Brosnahan as Jean, who has to go on the lam with a crying infant she calls “Harry” who has been given to her by her husband Eddie who pops in and just as promptly disappears, never to reappear. Criminal connections, vague albeit lethal, mean that she and the baby are also at risk from pursuing thuggish elements, though Jean fortunately gets some protection from a Black gunman Cal who shows up after hubby exits the scene.  That includes bringing her and baby to his own family.  I’m not sure what the title is supposed to mean since Jean strikes me as “nobody’s baby”.  Still I sympathized with her predicament, stuck in an underworld of danger while cradling little Harry.

Another Round  (Denmark/Netherlands/Sweden 2020, )  B

Mads Mikkelsen play “Martin”, the main character in this typically riotous Thomas Vinterberg production.  The wacky premise, attributed to the theories of Finn Skårderud, is that humans have a blood alcohol deficit.  A history teacher in a rut, Martin is joined by three middle-aged colleagues who become drinking buddies in a boozy experiment that turns into binge drinking  (including by students celebrating the end of term).  It’s all mixed with dashes of off-kilter humour.  The antics prove diverting and ephemeral enough to not induce a hangover.

Palm Springs (U.S. 2020, Amazon Prime Video)  C

Max Barbakow directs this silly sex farce starring Andy Samberg that premiered at Sundance almost a year ago. Samberg’s attire for most of the movie is an ugly untucked Hawaiian shirt paired with mustard-coloured shorts. Say what?  Some might find it a charming romcom.  I found it vulgar and ridiculous.  Enough said. 

News of the World (U.S. 2020,

A Christmas Day release.  More in a next post.














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