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Ides of February Reviews

First, a tribute to the great Canadian thespian Christopher Plummer who died at age 91 early this month.  One of the finest actors of his generation he had an amazing long career.  Thanks to my sister Yvonne for noting that his performance in the 2015 film Remember can be streamed on CBC Gem.  And do check out that platform for other content including excellent documentaries.

            As Oscar buzz is building, Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland keeps gathering more accolades.  Check out this interview with her:https://deadline.com/2021/02/nomadland-director-chloe-zhao-searchlight-pictures-interview-news-1234684285/.  And for more on principal actor Frances McDormand see: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2021/feb/14/frances-mcdormand-the-uneasy-star-who-cant-avoid-her-charisma.

            What follows are some reviews from the vast content being added to streaming services.

Collective (Romania/Luxembourg 2019, HotDocs at Home) A+

This outstanding documentary directed by Alexander Nanau has already collected many awards and should be an Oscar nominee.  The title comes from “Colectiv”, the name of a Bucharest nightclub that suffered a catastrophic fire in October 2015 resulting in 27 deaths on site (more died later in hospital) and many more severe injuries.  The film’s methodical direct-observation approach examines the aftermath of social and political scandal, notably the chain of corruption and bribery investigated by journalists from the publication “Sports Gazette”.  Burn victims were subject to hospital infections as a result of the dilution of disinfectants supplied by a firm HexiPharma.  Public outrage was vented at the authorities.  The filmmakers got amazing insider access to the efforts of an idealistic new minister of health to rectify the abuses. We also see the resilience of a woman survivor who becomes a symbol of the tragedy.   But although the Social Democrat government at the time of the fire was forced to resign, it obtained an electoral majority several years later.  Given the systemic corruption of the political class and hospital administration it is small wonder that few young Romanians take part in the democratic process.  The film shines an unsparing light on the deeper collective failures exposed by the 2015 incident.    

Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb (U.S./Egypt 2020, Netflix)  A

I visited Egypt in 2014 and thanks to the recommendation of my friend Victoria Berry I made a point to go to the ancient Saqqara site at some distance south from Cairo.  In addition to the famous “step pyramid” (which predates those of Giza) it holds many other treasures.  This documentary directed by James Tovell explores a major 2018 archeological find—the 4,400 year old tomb of a high priest named Wahtye.  Hot dusty painstaking excavation work prior to the start of Ramadan yielded amazing discoveries and more than 3,000 unique artifacts.  Bits of animation add to Tovell’s illustration of how the story of Wahtye is deciphered from the discoveries in the tomb.  [More comment at: https://www.thereviewgeek.com/secretsofthesaqqaratomb-moviereview/.]

Mayor (U.S./UK 2020, https://www.mayorfilm.com/, on demand) A

This fine observational documentary directed by David Osit follows Musa Hadid, the mayor of Ramallah, the main city of the Palestinian West Bank under Israeli occupation and surrounded by illegal Israeli settlements.  A deeply human portrait, most of the filming took place during the 2017 Christmas season. Hadid tries to elevate civic spirits (there’s a discussion about “city branding”, a colurful “WeRamallah” installation and wondrous fountain in front of city hall), alongside coping with the constant frustrations imposed by the limitations of occupation.  When protests erupt after Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there, Hadid has to put out fires, sometimes literally.  Speaking in English to a visiting German parliamentary delegation he stresses the Palestinian demand for “dignity”.  At home he hosts Prince William and internationally is a voice for the Palestinian cause of independence and freedom. Through it all Hadid maintains a calm measured demeanor, even when tested by the overlord presence of the Israeli military.  As intractable as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears, it is reassuring to see mayors like this doing their level best under trying circumstances.   

The White Tiger  (India/U.S. 2021, Netflix)  A

From writer-director Ramin Bahrani, adapting the eponymous 2008 Booker-prize winning novel, this sharp satire of India’s class and caste divisions in “the world’s greatest democracy” focuses on the ambitions of a poor young man Balram (Adarsh Gourav), a lowly “country mouse”, who becomes the servant driver for a wealthy family.  The latter include a son Ashok and his Indian-American wife Pinky who have supposedly more progressive attitudes from time spent in America.  That is tested following a hit-and-run accident when Balram is pressured to sign a false confession. While showing up the country’s socio-economic and ethno-religious maladies, this amorality tale about exploitation and its perils delights in telling how Balram manages to surmount his servile circumstances.  As Balram becomes a hip successful entrepreneur, the “tiger” in him bites.

Palmer (U.S. 2021, Apple TV+)  B+

Former popstar Justin Timberlake gives an effective performance as Palmer, a young man on parole following a 12-year prison sentence, in this Louisiana-set drama directed by Fisher Stevens. He returns to his grandma Vivian (June Squibb) who is also caring for a young boy Sam (Ryder Allen) whose mom Shelly (Juno Temple) is a mostly absent addict.   Palmer gets a second-chance job as a school janitor but Vivian dies leaving her house to the church.  Moreover Sam, a pudgy, effeminate kid who plays with dolls, faces the challenges of his nonconforming gender expression.  Although Sam becomes attached to Palmer (in a sense both are outcasts), the issue of custody gets disputed in court.   With our sympathies clearly drawn to Palmer and the boy, this becomes a heartwarming story of redemption (though with a viewing caution about a few bursts of violence, adult romance and sex).

The Dig (UK 2021, Netflix)  A-

Helmed by Simon Stone adapting a John Preston novel about actual events, the story unfolds on the eve of the Second World War on the Suffolk estate of a widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) who, while suffering from a heart ailment, hires the gruff pipe-smoking Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to excavate several large earthen mounds on her property.  Edith’s young son Robert (Archie Barnes) is fascinated by Brown’s dig.  Also present and taking photographs is Edith’s handsome cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn), soon to be called up to the RAF. An amateur archeologist, Brown’s labours lead to an amazing discovery—the skeleton of a sixth or seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ship buried with its precious artifacts. As word gets out, professionals from the British museum arrive to claim the “Sutton Hoo” site and shove Brown aside. Another aspect of the human story surrounding the discovery plays out among members of the museum archeological team. Peggy (Lily James), given her unsatisfying husband Stuart (Ben Chaplin), finds herself attracted to Rory as dramatic incidents—a plane crash and underwater rescue of the inexperienced pilot—presage the onset of the great war.  An ancient English civilization yields remarkable discoveries as the lives of this English world are put to the test.  [See also: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2021/01/famed-anglo-saxon-ship-burial-sutton-hoo-last-kind/.]

Penguin Bloom (Australia/U.S. 2020, Netflix)  A-

We had magpies on the Saskatchewan farm where I grew up but I don’t recall them fondly.  That’s not the case with the abandoned injured magpie chick the Bloom family with three shaggy little boys led by Noah (Griffin Murray-Johnston) discovers and decide to care for.  They name the chirping black-and-white bundle of fluff Penguin or ‘Peng” for short.  Helmed by Glendyn Ivin and based on a book about actual events, the mother Sam (Naomi Watts), is in a wheelchair, partially paralyzed from a Thailand vacation accident. While her mother Jan (Jacki Weaver) fusses, husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln) tries to hold it all together. That both Sam and Penguin face recovery challenges deepens the human-bird bond to get through difficult moments as when Sam lashes out in frustration and Penguin goes missing. Peng learns to fly and comes back.  Sam discovers kayak therapy and competition.  Kudos to the eight different magpies for their role of inspiring a human story that’s not “for the birds”.  

Crack: Cocaine, Corruption & Conspiracy (U.S. 2021, Netflix)  A-

Prior to the pandemic and the opioid crisis there was the failed 1980s “war on drugs” and the political and moral panic over the scourge of addiction to “crack”—an adulterated low-cost form of cocaine—that particularly affected America’s inner cities and racialized minorities.  There was the street capitalism of dealers and criminal gangs that corrupted police forces.  There was the hypocrisy of the Reagan administration’s “just say no” campaign, neglecting the roots of poverty and inequality while promising to “make America great again”.   There was the Clinton administration’s crime bill that made matters worse through criminalization and costly mass incarceration.  This documentary told in eight chapters is a cautionary tale of how Not to tackle America’s drug addiction problems, its societal causes and consequences. [More comment at:

https://readysteadycut.com/2021/01/11/crack-cocaine-corruption-and-conspiracy-netflix-review/.]

Greenland (U.S./UK 2020, https://www.greenlandmovie.com/ Amazon Prime Video)  C

I watched this two-hour pre-pandemic disaster movie the day after being notified that my July Iceland to Greenland expedition was being cancelled due to Covid.  The sparse late “Greenland” scenes were actually filmed in Iceland.  And just imagine the planetary plague disaster dramas to come.  Anyway, this dire story directed by Ric Roman Waugh focuses on a family of three, the Garritys—dad John (Gerard Butler), mom Allison (Morena Baccarin), and diabetic young son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd)—as they try to survive when fragments of a comet called “Clarke” start raining down on earth and the American military is mobilized. Panic sets in after the shock wave from an early collision takes out part of Florida (too bad Tampa!).  The Garritys luck out by being selected for “emergency shelter relocation” (with bar codes and wrist bands) but get separated as matters turn crazier and more violent.  There’s more luck to come amid the anarchy and calamities; even time en route for a farewell visit with grandpa Dale (Scott Glenn). The Greenland connection is that the destination for the chosen few survivors before a looming “extinction-level event” is underground bunkers of the Cold War-era Thule U.S. airforce base in northern Greenland.  (I’ve actually been close to it, in Qaanaaq, which is the island’s northernmost community.)  Remember when Donald Trump wanted to buy Greenland and was miffed when rebuffed by Denmark?  That’s actually less nutty than this movie.  And spare a thought for Greenland on the countdown to apocalypse.

On the Rocks (U.S. 2020, https://a24films.com/films/on-the-rocks, Apple TV+) B

In this slight pre-pandemic dramedy from writer-director Sofia Coppola, a mixed-race New York couple Laura (Rashida Jones) and Dean (Marlon Wayans) with two little girls who navigate some rougher marital waters when Laura suspects Dean may be straying on his business trips.  That is not helped by the presence of Laura’s dad Felix (Bill Murray), a somewhat louche old white guy with a philandering past.  Nothing serious really happens.  If you want to know more read this review: https://www.indiewire.com/2020/09/on-the-rocks-review-sofia-coppola-1234588107/.  

Fatima (Portugal/U.S. 2020, https://www.fatimathemovie.com/, Netflix)  B-

This rather stodgy English-language coproduction has recently been added to the streaming service. The story of Fatima has been told on the screen before, most notably in The Miracle of Fatima released in my birth year 1952.  Making films about apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary is tricky—never faithful enough for devout believers; never skeptical enough for others.

Fatima took place in rural Portugal in 1917 during the trials of the First World War when three peasant children—10-year old Lucia (Stephanie Gil) and younger cousins Jacinta (Alejandra Howard) and Francisco (Jorge Lamelas)—claimed to have seen Our Lady (a beautiful woman clothed in white and carrying a rosary) in a field and received her messages of peace and secret prophecies.  This caused a popular sensation and no end of troubles for the adults including secular and religious authorities. During the last visitation in October 1917 a crowd of some 70,000 witnessed an apparent solar phenomenon, the “miracle of the sun”, but only the children ever saw the lady.

            This account, helmed by Marco Pontecorvo, is framed by a much later encounter between a skeptical author, Professor Nichols (Harvey Keitel) and Sister Lucia (Sonia Braga).  (While Jacinta and Francisco both died in the 1918 flu pandemic, Lucia became a nun and lived to age 97.)   Such apparitions are not a rational phenomenon, though the film closes with this quote from Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live.  One is as though nothing is a miracle.  The other is as though everything is a miracle.”  One might also say that the story of planet earth and of life on earth—as explored in science series like David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet—is miraculous enough even without heavenly interventions.

Malcolm & Marie (U.S. 2021, Netflix)  C

Lensed in black-and-white, this two-hander from writer-director Sam Levinson (son of veteran director Barry Levinson) stars John David Washington and Zendaya as the titular young African-American couple who have returned to a swanky California beach house after the successful premiere of Malcolm’s new movie apparently based on Marie’s past as an addict. Squabbling and smoking, they can’t stop finding excuses to talk at each other.  After chowing down on “mac&cheese” comfort food made by Marie, Malcolm launches into a ridiculous rant over the positive review by a white woman at the L.A. Times.  There’s no satisfaction to be had for these two as the run-on dialogue ranges from pretentious to exceedingly tiresome.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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