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Post-Oscars Post

Nomadland has garnered much acclaim and commentary leading up to its well-deserved best picture win at the April 25 Oscars when its director Chloé Zhao became the first woman of colour to receive the best director award.   (So far it’s streaming only on Disney+.  Her previous work The Rider, also superb, is on Amazon Prime.)  Nomadland, for which Frances McDormand also received a best actress Oscar, had previously earned four major British academy awards (Baftas)—best picture, director, actress, and cinematography.  The film’s observational realism casts some actual “nomads”—aging itinerant van dwellers who make ends meet by picking up occasional temp jobs at places like Amazon warehouses.  That is the subject of the short documentary “Camperforce” which can be watched here: https://www.moviemaker.com/the-real-nomadland-doc-follows-elderly-camperforce-living-in-rvs-working-for-amazon/.  [The film has drawn some criticism but for a vigorous defence see: https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/nomadland-oscars-best-picture-b1833796.html?amp.  On how Zhao does it see also: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2021-04-24/chloe-zhao-movies-nomadland-director-non-actors?_amp=true.]  

I’m a big fan of the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) channel on TV.  Recently I rewatched the 1968 film The Heart is a Lonely Hunter which is the drama that turned me on to the power of cinema.  (It’s the first “milestone movie” in my book The Best of Screenings &Meanings at page 21.) I first saw it as a student at St. Peter’s College as part of a “Cine Club”. I still find it tremendously profound and moving.  It’s the tragic story of a deaf-mute played by Alan Arkin who is befriended by his landlady’s teenage daughter played by the late Sondra Locke who was later married to Clint Eastwood for some years.  Both Locke and Arkin received Oscar nominations.  Set in the deep south there’s also an important racial element in the narrative. Another TCM selection I watched with admiration again after decades is the 1963 drama Lilies of the Field which was shot in 14 days with a tiny budget.  Sidney Poitier became the first African American to win an Oscar for his role as Homer Smith, an unemployed drifter who comes to the aid of a group of five nuns from East Germany who have settled in the arid American southwest, and whose faith in the man they call “Schmit” never wavers.  Although not Catholic he helps them build a chapel with help from the local Latino population. However improbable, it’s a delight from start to finish. Another ‘60s classic presented as part of TCM’s “31 Days of Oscar” is A Man for All Seasons from 1966, a best picture winner with Paul Scofield in the lead role of St. Sir Thomas More. 

The Mole Agent (Chile/U.S./Germany/Netherlands/Spain 2020, https://themoleagentfilm.com/ , Kanopy) A

This most unusual Chilean documentary by writer-director Maite Alberdi, which premiered at Sundance 2020, earned an Oscar nomination in the documentary category.  The scenes capture the atmosphere inside a long-term care facility, the San Francisco Nursing Home, but the storyline is hardly conventional.  The “mole” is a delightful octogenarian Sergio Chamy who is recruited by a private detective and former criminal investigator Rómulo Aitken based on a newspaper advertisement. The three-month mission is to check out the suspicions of Aitken’s client, the daughter of an elderly resident who believes her mother is being abused.  Sergio is a charmer who becomes a centre of attraction for many.  He uncovers lots of loneliness and some delusions while figuring out how to send regular audio reports to Aitken using a smartphone app. There’s also a camera hidden in a pen and his glasses.  While Sergio doesn’t find anything sinister happening to the target Sonía Perez, he does guide us through a series of sometimes comic interactions with other residents and staff. He’s even crowned “king” during one celebration.   The film slyly uses the levity of these fictional elements to shed light on the situation of those in care homes and the need for an empathetic touch to bring solace to those who feel abandoned.

Martin Eden (Italy/France 2019, Kanopy) B+

Also now on Kanopy, this sprawling historical drama directed by Pietro Marcello is adapted from a 1909 eponymous novel by Jack London, though the setting has moved from California to Italy.  It’s anchored by a strong performance from Luca Marinelli in the title role of a young proletarian who strives to become a writer and whose act of courage (he saves a boy from a savage beating) brings him into the circle of a bourgeois family.  There are visually arresting stylized elements woven into a narrative that plays with themes of social class, socialism, and social Darwinism. Winner of the platform prize at the 2019 Toronto film festival.

When Hands Touch (UK 2018, Amazon Prime Video)  B

Recently added to this service, writer-director Amma Asante’s Second World War drama centres on the plight of a biracial girl Leyna (Amandla Stenberg) who is caught up in Nazi Germany’s drive for racial purity.  Her Aryan mother tries to protect her, including obtaining false papers, but these efforts ultimately prove to be in vain. Leyna meanwhile has become attracted to a young man Lutz (George MacKay) who has joined the Hitler youth.  Lutz is the son of an outwardly ardent Nazi who nonetheless secretly listens to verboten Billie Holiday jazz records. Complications are sure to follow.   Indeed Leyna becomes pregnant before being rounded up and sent to a labour camp to which Lutz is subsequently posted.   The historical persecution faced by biracial Germans was very real and is certainly worth noting.  However the emotionally overwrought melodramatic contrivances in this story are less convincing.   

Queen Marie of Romania (Romania 2019, video on demand)  B+

Directed by Alexis Sweet Cahill, this earnest drama may be somewhat on the slow and stodgy side but sheds light on a little known aftermath of the First World War.  Romania had suffered, caught between Russia—an allied power in the throes of revolution—and an invading Germany which had forced a treaty upon the country.  Queen Marie, the consort of King Ferdinand I, was related to the British royal family; indeed she was a cousin of King George V.  Marie was insistent that Romania side with the allied powers. Popular at home and abroad, Marie took it upon herself personally to attend the 1919 Paris Peace Conference to advocate for a greater unified Romania, a cause for which she was successful in achieving international recognition.  Much of the film is devoted to those efforts.   Roxana Lupu is convincing in the title role and so is the period production design.

Kiss the Ground (U.S. 2020, www.kissthegroundmovie.com, Netflix) B+

Directed by Joshua and Rebeca Harrel Tickell, and narrated by actor and eco-activist Woody Harrelson, this doc that premiered at the 2020 Tribeca festival is a passionate blast against industrial agriculture in all its forms, including monocultures and the overuse of chemical pesticides among other harmful practices.  There is strong advocacy for ways to create and conserve healthy organic soils, primarily through regenerative agriculture and also though composting and other means. The ability of healthy soils to sequester carbon also links to action on climate change, contributing to solutions instead of adding to the problem. The film has a new-agey vibe that won’t appeal to everyone but the points it makes, some drawing on direct farmer experience, are on solid ground.

April 22 was Earth Day and a number of streaming choices connect to that.  First let me mention the almost three-hour PBS coproduction Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World shown on PBS stations on that date which follows the environmental activism of the world’s most famous teenage girl. (Find out more at: https://www.pbs.org/articles/how-to-watch-greta-thunberg-a-year-to-change-the-world-and-other-earth-day-stories/.)  The documentary includes a brief conversation between her and David Attenborough who has probably done more than anyone to bring the natural world to the attention of a mass audience.  As a warm up I would recommend the 2018 three-episode series Attenborough: 60 Years in the Wild (A+) that can be found on the BBC Earth channel through Amazon Prime Video.  This looks back on a remarkable legacy of filming wildlife.  And Attenborough, going on 95, continues to produce amazing nature documentaries as the next titles attest.

The Year Earth Changed  (UK 2021, Apple TV +)  A

Directed by Tom Beard and narrated by David Attenborough, this 48-minute BBC documentary in the lead up to Earth Day takes another view of the state of the world under pandemic conditions.  While dire news for much of humanity, the extensive and extended lockdowns have lessened some of the negative impacts of human activity on wildlife and the natural world.  This may be only a temporary reprieve but it is noteworthy nonetheless.  In the longer term the challenge is to find ways in which a growing world population can coexist with ecosystems capable of sustaining all of the other living species with which we share this terrestrial home.  Because there is no Planet B.

Life in Colour (UK/Australia 2021, Netflix and BBC One) A+

Narrator and guide David Attenborough adds to his great filmography of nature docs with this one that over three episodes explores the role that changing colour patterns play in the animal kingdom on land and sea.  Some of the colour ranges enjoyed by other creatures are not visible to the human eye—notably the ultraviolet light spectrum and polarized images which are captured using highly specialized camera innovations.  In other cases there are animals that see fewer colour ranges than humans.   The ability to detect colours and the range of that ability, plays a critical role in the life of many species.  Attenborough’s approach is as compelling as always and his discoveries never cease to amaze.

Secrets of the Whales (U.S. 2021, National Geographic on Disney+)  A+

Executive produced by James Cameron and narrated by Sigourney Weaver, this four-episode series was filmed over three years in several dozen locations and explores the behaviors of different whales species—primarily orcas (‘killer whales”), humpbacks, belugas, and the “ocean giants” sperm whales.  I have been privileged to see whales in the wild on marine expeditions, including blue whales, the largest of all.  Whales are air-breathing mammals that nurse their young with milk.  They are also highly intelligent, social, and matriarchal creatures that communicate with each other and exhibit distinct cultures. Thankfully, instead of being hunted to extinction whales have become subjects of fascination. This series is highly recommended both for its extraordinary underwater images and its educational value. 

 

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