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Post-Easter Viewing Update:

First the news that as of today the Disney+ streaming platform’s “Star” channel has added Nomadland, much acclaimed for its documentary-like realism and my best film of 2020, to its lineup.  (The movie is a favorite for the best picture Oscar to be announced April 25.  For more see: https://ew.com/awards/oscars/chloe-zhao-nomadland-oscars/.) Disney is better known for more fantastical fare.  Interestingly, Nomandland’s Chinese-born director Chloé Zhao has since helmed the latest Marvel epic Eternals, so perhaps the connection is not so unusual.  Of course there’s tons more on the Disney platform including a new Falcon and the Winter Soldier series if you are into the superhero genre.  I’m not but the first episodes are directed by Canadian Kari Skogland and I was intrigued enough to watch a couple.  There’s a new “Captain America”, references to “post-blip” in the Marvel cinematic universe, and something about vaccines having been stolen, which I guess is a thing now.  As if the 24/7 Covid pandemic news were not enough, over on Amazon Prime Video there’s new series The Stand about a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a deadly influenza virus.  It seems all of humanity has been wiped out by this “global extinction event” except for a few survivors in Colorado.  The first episode is titled “The End” and that was enough for me.  It was only partially redeemed by a pre-suicidal recitation of my favorite poem, W.B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”. If you like goofy and gross, this is for you.  [Much better are the international series and films on Sundance Now (just google Sundance Now for a free 30-day trial).  I recently enjoyed the excellent Norwegian Nordic noir crime series Wisting.]  And don’t forget about free streaming through the Kanopy service accessed with a public library account.  The wide selection includes many classics and masterworks.  I recently watched the 2001 documentary War Photographer about the intrepid career of James Nachtwey.

Let me also note several excellent docuseries.  Netflix is the home for those narrated by Sir David Attenborough and will be carrying his latest Life in Colour beginning on Earth Day April 22.  Not to be missed.  I’m also impressed with several six-episode series streaming on Apple TV+.  The first is Earth at Night in Colour which uses the latest camera technologies to capture some amazing images of nocturnal wildlife behaviour.  Each episode concludes with a “shot in the dark” sequence explaining the work of the specialized teams in the field.  Also on the Apple platform is Tiny World which explores life on a miniature scale.  A second season is due to debut on April 16.   The narration of these two series—by Tom Hiddleston and Paul Rudd respectively—contains some bits of Disney-like anthropomorphism as part of its storytelling.  But that does not detract from the extraordinary visuals showing the wonders of the natural world and the lives of its amazingly diverse creatures, with elements sometimes as strange as anything imagined by science fiction. Highly recommended. 

            On HBO, clocking in at six hours is the six-episode docuseries Q: Into the Storm which concluded on Easter Sunday.  Created and narrated by Cullen Hoback, it delves into the “QAnon” phenomenon of wild conspiracy theories and obsessed followers that has spread on the internet (assisted by “Qtubers”) and via anything-goes “free speech” platforms such as “8chan”.  Among the many layers of lunacy, there’s a weird connection to the Philippines and several wacky characters. One is a disabled chap “Fred” who gets around in a wheelchair with his little dog.  There’s also a father and son who uses the online moniker “Codemonkey”.  This is a deep dive into just how nutty the movement is.  Still it flourished enough to have had serious real-world consequences, notably through the connection to Trumpism, with Trump being seen as saving America from the “deep state” and other invented horrors including satanism and pedophilia. The “Q” factor was significant in mobilizing those involved in the deadly January 6 assault of the U.S. Capitol so it cannot be dismissed lightly.  The series shows how dubious online forums on the far-right fringe can be deployed to disseminate paranoid delusions to the point of endangering the institutions of democracy. Cyberspace and its popular online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook can become a driver of domestic terrorism. Citizens beware!

The Good Traitor (Denmark 2020, video one demand)  B+

This account of actual events directed by Christina Rosendahl concerns the activities of Henrik Kaufmann (Ulrich Thomsen), Denmark’s ambassador to the United States in 1939 when The Nazis invaded and occupied the country.  Appalled by the new collaborationist government in Copenhagen which declared him a “traitor”, Kaufmann essentially went rogue and refused to be recalled.  Instead he declared his diplomatic mission to be loyal to an independent government in exile.  He gained access to a gold reserve that allowed some embassies in other countries to maintain independence.  He also used his American wife Charlotte’s connections to solicit support from the Roosevelts. He was instrumental in arranging a treaty “in the name of the king” which granted the Americans a strategic military base in Greenland that continues to this day.  The story of Henrik and Charlotte ended in personal tragedy in the 1960s but the details of this remarkable wartime episode in the annals of diplomacy make for an arresting historical drama.

Francesco (U.S./Czech Republic 2020, https://www.francescofilm.com/) A

There have been previous laudatory profiles of the “people’s pope”, notably master filmmaker Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.  This one, by director, producer and cinematographer Russian-born Israeli-American Evgeny Afineevsky (Cries from Syria) is the most complete yet. One of the pope’s early visits was to the Philippines in the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan.  In bringing the message of the gospels to the world we get a sense of Francis’s humble and compassionate touch, reaching out to all faiths and to people everywhere as he addresses the human condition and the threats to our earthly home from climate change to environmental destruction.  The focus is on Francis’s role as pope, though there is a brief backstory of growing up as the child of Italian immigrants in Argentina and his positions within the Jesuit order.  The film does not dodge controversies that have emerged, such as over his role during Argentina’s military dictatorship and handling of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse.  The approach of Francis is a pastoral one of someone who admits mistakes, who offers apologies, and who asks for forgiveness.

            Secular critics have not been kind to the film.  For example, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls it “another well-intentioned but syrupy and pointless hagiography.”  These critics seem to want a doctrinal revolution for what they consider the failings of the Catholic Church—why no women priests? why no acceptance of gay marriage?  (Interestingly, Avineevsky, the alleged hagiographer of a “papal love-in”, is openly gay.)  These critics miss the point of the spirit of service that Francis has brought to the papacy and of the transformative legacy that leads through example.  It’s what makes this documentary both moving and inspirational. 

            I watched the film on the Easter weekend via a rental through the Canadian HotDocsatHome platform (https://hotdocs.ca/p/hd-home).   That also gave access to the bonus of a post-screening panel discussion among the director, Kerry Kennedy, President of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights, Fr. James Martin SJ, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient José Ramos-Horta.

Concrete Cowboy  (U.S./UK 2020, Netflix)  B

First-time filmmaker Ricky Staub helms this unusual horse opera that premiered at the 2020 Toronto film festival.  He’s also co-writer of the screenplay adapted from Gregory Neri’s 2013 book Ghetto Cowboy.  Did you know that there’s an area in north Philadelphia—Fletcher street to be exact—that hosts horse stables and a community of African-American riders?  Yup.  Some actual members of this community ground a father-son story (watch them speak to the camera over the end credits).  The main fictional characters are Harp (Idris Elba) who shares his house with a horse named Chuck. Harp’s wife split some time ago and he has a teenage son Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) raised in Detroit who has come to live with him.  Harp tries to instill some responsibility in Cole and to keep him from hanging out with bad influences in the ‘hood, notably a cousin “Smush” (Jharrel Jerome) who deals drugs.  This is an urban African-American story that upends the traditional western genre.  The inner city as home on the range.  Who knew.

Seapiracy (U.S. 2021, Netflix)  B

It’s hard to know how to rate this dire documentary dir3ected and narrated by Ali Tabrizi which takes on everything that ails our oceans and the lifeforms beneath the waves.  Industrial and illegal fishing are major targets, along with plastic pollution including from discarded fishing gear. Some of the subjects—notably the deadly assaults on dolphins and sharks—have been dealt with in better more focused docs like The Cove and Sharkwater.  Whales are another threatened species.  Tabrizi hates fish farming practices too.  On the multiple wrongs of humanity’s present course he interviews George Monbiot and champions the protest actions of the Sea Shepherd Society while slamming other environmental organizations like the Earth Island Institute and dismissing “sustainable” labels as marketing scams.  Given the number of shocking and sensational claims (including of slavery and murder), it’s hardly surprising the film has drawn mixed reactions.  Some hail it as essential viewing (https://www.thereviewgeek.com/seaspiracy-moviereview/) while others denounce it (https://earther.gizmodo.com/dont-watch-netflixs-seaspiracy-1846630338).  Tabrizi’s damning approach appears to attack all seafood harvesting and lead to a conclusion that strict veganism is the only ethical option. Although the film raises important questions it suffers from a tendency to rhetorical excess.

 

 

 

 

 

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