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First March Post

This has been a dark winter for theatres but with some reopening as of March I was thrilled to be able to see several titles on the big screen: Our Friend at Ottawa’s surviving repertory independent theatre, the Mayfair (it opened during the Depression in 1932 so has seen lean times before), and at a Cineplex Judas and the Black Messiah, both reviewed below.

 On the small screen, although I get HBO I’d missed last year’s 6-episode series I Know This Much is True (A) but was turned on to stream it after Mark Ruffalo won a Golden Globe best actor award for his exceptional performance in the dual role of identical twin brothers, one of whom is a paranoid schizophrenic.  In the first minutes there is a horrific act of self-mutilation, and that’s just the beginning of the family trauma and tragedy.  Not an easy watch but rewarding if one sticks with it.

There are also many new series being added to streaming services.  I’ll just mention a couple.  Apple TV+ is rolling out more of For All Mankind (B), a very alternative history of the space race that started during the Cold War, imagining the Soviets were first to land a man on the moon.  I was not even aware of the first season which launched with “Red Moon” in November 2019.   In later episodes Ted Kennedy becomes president, there are lunar bases that include women (the American one is called “Jamestown”), and much else retro fantasy.  Now there’s to be a third season.  [For early comment see: https://www.rogerebert.com/streaming/for-all-mankind-is-only-a-small-step-forward-for-appletv.]  So far several episodes of season 2 are available, spaced out a week at a time.  Not great but occasionally engaging.  Netflix has added another German series with six episodes, Tribes of Europa (C). It’s supposedly set in the year 2074, some decades after a mysterious dystopian 2029 global catastrophe that has driven what remains of human civilization back into a primitive state of subsistence among warring tribes.  Tossed into this post-apocalyptic reversion to savagery is an eclectic muddle of modern and sci-fi elements.  I didn’t get much beyond the first episode, finding the premise too unconvincing and the action ghastly.  [But for more comment see: https://www.thereviewgeek.com/tribesofeuropa-s1review/.]  

On a more positive note, through HotDocs I was able to see four excellent documentaries as part of the Human Rights Watch Toronto Film Festival in late February.

A La Calle  (U.S. 2020) A

Spanish for “To the Street”, this film directed by Maxx Calcedo and Nelson Navarrete covers the period 2014-2019 in which there were mass public demonstrations against the regime of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. It gives voice to those challenging state power and includes compelling personal testimonies. [For a detailed review see: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/a-la-calle-review-on-the-edge-of-democracy.]

I Am Samuel (Kenya/Canada/UK/U.S. 2020) A

Directed by Peter Murimi, this film follows the challenges faced by Samuel as a young gay man from a rural area in Kenya where homosexuality is criminalized. [More comment at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/hot-docs-review-i-am-samuel.] 

Maxima (U.S. 2019, https://www.standwithmaxima.com/) A

I had a special interest in this film, directed by Claudia Sparrow (it won the 2019 HotDocs audience award), as I am still hoping to do a charity challenge trek in Peru later this year.  The title character is Máxima Acuña, a remarkable Indigenous woman from the high Andean region of that country where she lives on a small plot of land coveted by the expansion plans of a giant gold mining corporation Newmont.   The corporation has made legal claims and used Peruvian  police controls and threats of violent intimidation to try to force her off her land.  Maxima has had to wage a long legal battle to defend her land, with some success. There is also the issue of the toxic effects of mine operations on water resources. Maxima has received an international environmental award and has traveled to the U.S. where Newmont is headquartered.  (The World Bank had also taken a small stake in the mine through the International Finance Corporation.) Her cause has been supported by the NGO Earth Rights International and demonstrates how one determined courageous woman can stand up to corporate and corrupted state power. [More at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/review-maxima.]  

Wake Up on Mars (France/Switzerland 2020) B+

Writer-director Dea Gjinovci’s film concerns the unusual case of a refugee Kosovar family of six, the Demiris, that is having a difficult time trying to obtain asylum in Sweden.  The two teenage daughters suffer from “resignation syndrome”, a bedridden comatose state, apparently the result of trauma and legal setbacks.  The title comes from the whimsical imagination of the youngest brother Furkan who scavenges parts in a junkyard for his fantasy of inter-planetary travel.   A way for a little boy to escape the grim reality of his family’s situation, it serves as a metaphor for the desire to wake up from the disorientation of the refugee experience. [More comment at: http://povmagazine.com/articles/view/wake-up-on-mars-review-searching-for-a-home.]

The Map of Tiny Perfect Things (U.S. 2021, Amazon Prime Video) C

In this flighty dramedy directed by Ian Samuels, the protagonist is Mark (Kyle Allen), a hotshot adolescent who skips and floats through the day.  The problem, explained as a “temporal anomaly”, is that, even without groundhogs, he keeps waking up to the same day over and over again.  He has a black buddy Henry (Jermaine Harris) who plays video games, and meets a girl Margaret (Kathryn Newton) with whom the titular “map” takes shape.  Other elements tossed in include a sick mom, a turtle, and a lost dog.  It’s not supposed to make any sense but although the premise is flimsy at best there are a few mildly diverting moments.  [For more comment see: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/the-map-of-tiny-perfect-things-movie-review-2021.]

I Care a Lot (U.S./UK 2020, Amazon {Prime Video) B

The main strength of this uncaring drama from writer-director J. Blakeson is the performance of Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, a sociopathic predator in the legal guardianship racket.  She has an ally and lesbian partner Fran and ways to manipulate compliant doctors and courts.  The game is to find and target vulnerable lone seniors of means, get Marla appointed to be their legal guardian, then have them institutionalized while Marla takes control of their assets. When the target becomes Jennifer (Diane Wiest), seemingly a “cherry” ripe for picking, Marla and company get far more than they bargained for.  Jennifer is not without connections, most importantly to a crime boss Roman played by Peter Dinklage.  Hence the rich contents of her safety deposit box.  Roman also brings legal and other muscle to bear. Marla, the “lioness” whose philosophy is that “there’s no such thing as good people” is about to get mauled by it as the story twists turn wild and crazy.  Seldom has a movie title been more ironic.     

Our Friend (U.S. 2019, https://ourfriendmovie.com/) B

This uneven melodrama, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, is inspired by a true story “The Friend” that appeared in Esquire magazine in 2015 and can be read here: https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a34905/matthew-teague-wife-cancer-essay/. The author, Matthew Teague, is played by one of my favorite actors Casey Affleck, who brings a brooding soulful presence to the role of the husband of Nicole (Dakota Johnson).  She is the mother of their two young daughters when she develops a terminal cancer.  Matthew, a journalist who becomes a foreign correspondent, is sometimes away covering war zones.  The friend is Dane (Jason Segel), who has a sunnier personality than the sullen Matthew. He also had a crush on Nicole when they were in a New Orleans theatre group.  Dane stays in the picture throughout, becoming the couple’s steadfast supportive friend through every stage as the movie’s fractured narrative time frame keeps skipping between different intervals before and after the cancer diagnosis.  That may be part of the problem in getting a grip on this story of an unusual empathetic threesome that doesn’t build to the emotional impact it should have.

Judas and the Black Messiah (U.S. 2021, https://www.warnerbros.com/movies/judas-and-black-messiah)   A

Director and co-writer Shaka King’s historical drama, which premiered at Sundance, concerns what befell the Black Panther party in Chicago in the late 1960s when its activities where targeted by the FBI.  (Martin Sheen has a cameo as a repulsive reptilian racist J. Edgar Hoover.) Framing the narrative are brief archival elements that add to its power. The “Black Messiah” is the young outspoken Panther chairman Fred Hampton, played with charismatic zeal by Daniel Kayuuga (a Golden Globe winner for the role).  Hampton’s human side also comes through in his relationship with pregnant partner Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback).  The “Judas” is Bill O’Neal (an excellent Lakeith Stanfield), a petty thief who after being caught using a fake FBI badge is manipulated by FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) into infiltrating the Panthers to get close to Hampton.  Indeed be becomes a trusted driver and security captain who joins in enthusiastic Panther group chants of “I am a revolutionary!”.  The way Roy justified the FBI’s aggressive operations to Bill, the Panthers were as dangerous as the KKK in terms of inciting domestic terrorist violence.  A police shootout led to a torching of the Panthers headquarters. Subsequently Hampton was assassinated in a police raid in December 1969.  [For details of the killing and its aftermath see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Hampton.] The movie effectively recreates the incendiary atmosphere of the times that included alliances the Panthers made with several street gangs.  Most impressive are the performances of Kayuuga and Stanfield as the central characters of the title that captures the larger resonance of this violent episode in the continuing annals of American racial and economic oppression.

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