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Second March Movie Post

This is a special day because it was my mom’s birthday and she had 102 wonderful years.  So I am remembering her fondly and her lively interest in current events.

Thinking of aging wisely and gracefully, David Attenborough continues to put out engaging documentaries about the natural world.  On the BBC Earth channel (available through Amazon Prime Video) is David Attenborough’s Light on Earth (A+) which probes the many wonders of bioluminescence. On Netflix I also recommend the six-episode series Night on Earth (A) which explores many aspects of nature after dark. It is accompanied by final hour-long film about how ultra-sensitive night vision cameras and thermal imaging were used to capture astonishing images in the dark.  Also on Netflix, the highest recommendation to David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet (A+ which he describes as his “witness statement”.

Ontario is entering the Covid “red zone” again which means theatres closing. I’m still lamenting the loss of the independent ByTowne Cinema and watch this musical tribute to it here:  

Thanks to Andrew Cohen for alerting me to several excellent series on CNN: Lincoln: Divided We Stand and Stanley Tucci’s Italy.   If you get HBO, fine new docuseries include Allen v. Farrow and The Investigation.  (The latter has two great actors Søren Malling and Pilou Asbæk who had prominent roles in the fantastic Danish series Borgen which is available on Netflix.) HBO has also just added an edgy Swedish dramatic series Beartown involving young hockey players and sexual assault.

Read on for more reviews.

Billie Eilish: The World is a Little Blurry (U.S. 2021, Apple TV+)  B+

I admit I didn’t know anything about this pop music star (full name: Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell) before watching this.  Billie grew up idolizing Justin Bieber and then experienced her own meteoric rise to the top of the pop charts.  Concert footage of her energetic stage presence shows how it has inspired legions of obsessed mostly female fans, now armed with smartphone cameras.  What makes R.J. Cutler’s observational approach more interesting is the intimate behind-the-scenes footage of Billie’s family relationships including with supportive parents and older brother musician Finneas. Their role in her success is very apparent.  Notwithstanding earning mega millions and winning multiple Grammys, we still see the “blurry” side of Billie as an insecure teenage girl beyond the performance hype.

The Most Unknown (U.S. 2018, Netflix)  B+

Another recent addition to Netflix, director Ian Cheney, with advisory support from Werner Herzog, follows a series of encounters among nine scientists from different disciples studying some of the least understood phenomena in our universe from the tiniest micro-organisms, to “dark matter”, to the human brain and the nature of consciousness, to the exploration of the cosmos.  This quest shows how wide-ranging are the efforts to push forward the boundaries of science across many fronts, and underscores how much there is yet to be discovered.

Pelé  (UK 2021, Netflix)  B+

Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn direct this biopic that covers the storied career of legendary Brazilian footballer Pelé (full name Edson Arantes do Nascimento), the sport’s only player to record three World Cup wins.  Framing the archival material is Brazil’s triumph in the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City, Pelé’s last hurrah. Following Brazil’s humiliating loss at home in the final of the 1950 World Cup, the young dark-skinned Pelé emerged as a national hero and saviour of national pride.  The film captures the degree of adulation that accompanied his exploits.  But it also shows a more troubling side. Pelé never spoke out about the crimes of the military dictatorship that was imposed in the 1960s; indeed he allowed his popularity to be used for the regime’s propaganda purposes.  Pelé also admits he was an unfaithful husband.  Now aged 80, and shown using a walker and in a wheelchair, he enjoys reminiscing with old acquaintances and team members, but the ravages of time have taken their toll.  Along with the moments from his greatest achievements on the field, this fuller human portrait delivers more than simple hagiography.

Cherry (U.S. 2021, Apple TV+) C

Life is definitely not a bowl of cherries in this long (142 minutes) and dispiriting tale based on Nico Walker’s eponymous semi-autobiographical memoir and helmed by the Russo brothers (Anthony and Joe, best known for the Avengers franchise).  The “cherry” of the title is Nico as played by Brit-born actor Tom Holland, who narrates his life story of misadventures that start with a prologue in Cleveland.  Following a quickie marriage to Emily (Clara Bravo), he enlists in the army, survives the abuses of basic training and is deployed as a “warrior medic” to Iraq where the locals are referred to derisively as “hajis”.   The credits refer to a “Middle East Team” so some attempt is made to convey Nico’s experience dealing with casualties of war.  Nico gets a medal but the trauma leaves him with PTSD and anger issues.  On his return he quickly spirals into opioid addiction and becomes an outlaw holding up banks.  They are targeted with mocking made-up names—“Capitalist One”, “Sh----ty Bank”, “Bank F---ks” America, etc.   Nico and Emily are described as “dope fiends”.  Outcomes can be lethal.  But don’t mistake this piled-on mashup of American maladies for social critique.  The dialogue is as crude and immature as the protagonist. Eventually the law catches up and he serves a lengthy prison term.  An epilogue, accompanied by swelling orchestral music, concludes with a release and a smile, as if to create the illusion of a cherry on top when what this movie really delivers is the pits.

Escape from Pretoria (Australia/UK/South Africa, 2020, Amazon Prime Video) B

Francis Annan’s film is based on a real-life prison break by several white anti-apartheid activists—Tim Jenkin (Daniel Radcliffe, the former “Harry Potter” star), Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), and a fictionalized Francophone third person Leonard Fontaine (Mark Winter).  In the late 1970s Jenkin and Lee were arrested and given lengthy prison terms for deploying a leaflet “bomb” to spread anti-apartheid messages in Cape Town.  The narrative is based on Jenkin’s 1987 account of how over the course of 400-plus days he was able to fashion makeshift keys and devise a plan to escape the prison walls to an outside street from whence the trio of fugitives were able to flee the country.  They were not joined, however, by long-serving prisoners of conscience, notably Dennis Goldberg (Ian Hart) whose quiet resolve stands as a more potent symbol of protest. Even though filmed in Adelaide, Australia, the film renders the evils of incarceration by the repressive apartheid regime quite effectively. Still, with the title giving away the successful outcome, there isn’t a lot of suspense in how the prisoners’ potentially dangerous scheming escapes detection. Those prison details may be interesting enough but as a minor chapter in the long anti-apartheid struggle this escape lacks a larger impact.

My Salinger Year (Canada/Ireland 2020,, in theatres and on demand) B

I was fortunate to be able to see this on the big screen, at the Mayfair, Ottawa’s surviving repertory independent theatre.  From Québécois writer-director Philippe Falardeau, it premiered at the Berlin film festival over a year ago.  Based on the eponymous 2014 memoir by Joanna Rakoff, it stars Margaret Qualley as Joanna, the rather naïve newly hired young assistant to Margaret, the imperious head of a New York literary agency that represents the famously reclusive author J.D. Salinger. The scene is late ‘90s in the Big Apple and Margaret (played with world-weary archness by Sigourney Weaver) swans around cigarette in hand. Tasked with handling and disposing of Salinger’s fan mail, Joanna takes a few liberties in response that create potential trouble. Outside work Joanna has dumped an old boyfriend and moved in with a new one who claims to be a socialist and doesn’t think much of her literary dreams.  But Joanna, an aspiring poet, remains in thrall to its allure.  Making a connection to the The New Yorker (I’m a subscriber and love its writing), she gets involved in the possibility of one of Salinger’s old stories for the magazine being republished. Joanna also receives several phone calls from the legendary “Jerry” himself. The quirky narrative weaves in several other elements, casting Canadians Théodore Pellerin and Colm Feore in fleeting minor roles (the latter as an associate/partner of Margaret’s who kills himself for no apparent reason).  Nothing much resonates beyond the Salinger mythology but that air of mystery is enough to sustain Joanna’s desire to find her own voice.

Death of a Ladies Man (Canada/Ireland 2020) C+

I also saw this at the Mayfair and was enticed by the prospect of hearing iconic Leonard Cohen songs, of which there are not nearly enough.  Helmed by writer-director Matthew Bissonnette (who previously made a more compelling feature titled Looking for Leonard), the “ladies man” in question is Samuel O’Shea played by Gabriel Byrne.  A dissolute divorced alcoholic 64-year old professor of English poetry, Samuel travels from Montreal to Ireland where he finds a young female French Canadian muse Charlotte (Jessica Paré).  Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Samuel has hallucinations that include frequent visitations by the ghost of his father (Brian Gleeson).  Surreal sequences include one of “Bird on a Wire” performed as a hockey anthem.   Samuel confronts an ex-wife (Suzanne Clément) and has brief encounters with a gay son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon in a tiny role) and an addict daughter Josée (Karelle Tremblay). It’s a strange affair punctuated by lots of swearing until the curtain comes down with a bang not a whimper. That seems fitting somehow, though underwhelming as a tribute to Cohen’s musical legacy. The CBC and Crave get production credits so I expect this will arrive on the small screen before too long.

Audrey (U.S./UK 2020, Netflix) B+

Director Helena Coan has fashioned a compelling profile of Audrey Hepburn who emerged as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars with her Oscar-winning role in 1953’s Roman Holliday.  Hepburn had a complicated life. Born in Belgium, her parents had supported fascism.  She then survived difficult early years in Nazi-occupied Holland.  She always lamented the absence of her father.   Her dream was to be a dancer and Coan inserts several brief sequences of a female dancer into the life-story narrative.  Fortuitous casting and a rapid rise to Hollywood stardom took her in a different direction, including a first marriage to fellow actor Mel Ferrer.   Good use is made of archival materials and interviews with family members and friends. In public the epitome of style and grace, she was also emotionally insecure, ever searching for love.  At the height of fame she mostly quit acting, moving to Europe, first to Rome and later to Switzerland. She craved a quieter life away from the paparazzi. But she also used her star power to advantage in devoting herself to activism for children’s rights as an ambassador for UNICEF.  The movie gets at why Audrey Hepburn left such a lasting impression and was, as its subtitle suggests, “more than an icon”.

The Last Blockbuster (U.S. 2020, Netflix)  B+

Remember the video-rental chain that once had thousands of outlets across North America?  Younger generations will not.  There’s a certain irony that this affectionate look at the last surviving Blockbuster store—located in Bend, Oregon—is streaming on Netflix, the arrival of which in the late 1990s heralded the end of an era.   The business of video rentals may be obsolete, especially given the availability of ever-expanding streaming options, but this lone store survives partly as a tourist curiosity and thanks to the positive energy of its manager, a middle-aged woman Sandi Harding who has made it a family affair.  That personal touch gives the story of Blockbuster its charms even if the rise and fall of video rentals has become a footnote in the history of movie watching.




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